Fun Friday: Maxim Machine-Gun Mystery

posted on January 17, 2020

What’s better than an intriguing mystery story? A true intriguing mystery story…

Looking back on history, it’s interesting to note that many inventors worldwide were working on similar inventions simultaneously: Tesla and Edison with the radio; Newton and Leibniz with calculus. Yet many of those inventors were totally unbeknownst to one another. Such was the case with other major inventions, including early firearms.

It was in 1883 that American inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim introduced his Maxim gun, the first recoil-operated machine gun. Prior to that time, rapid-fire weapons were mainly hand-cranked, such as the famous Gatling gun used by Union troops during the Civil War.

The Maxim fired 550 to 600 rounds per minute of .303 British ammunition, and proved a devastating battlefield weapon. For example, during the Battle of Shangani in Rhodesia in 1893, 700 British soldiers were able to fight off 7,000 enemy warriors using their rifles and just four Maxim guns. Often, the gun’s presence alone was enough to have a psychological impact on enemy troops.    

As a result, the Maxim gun was eventually adopted by military units in more than 25 nations, including the United States. This machine gun remained in service from 1886 to as late as 1959, an eternity for any one firearm. And during those seven decades, the Maxim gun was employed in numerous wars and conflicts around the globe, including World War I, World War II and Korea.

Doug Wicklund, senior curator of the NRA’s American Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia, added a few more facts about the Maxim machine gun. “Because of the gun’s rapidity of fire, it required water-cooling,” he said. “Also, some of the first Maxims were ordered in .577/450 caliber, after the British adoption of the gun in 1888. The reason was that the same cartridge fit both rifles and machine guns, the first time for such compatibility.”

Ironically, about the same time Hiram Maxim introduced his machine gun, a British inventor, William Cantelo, introduced his version of a machine gun—his design being surprisingly similar to that of the Maxim. Shortly thereafter, and without explanation, Cantelo disappeared without a trace. His family eventually became so concerned for his safety and desperate to learn of his whereabouts that they hired a private detective to investigate. 

The detective tracked Cantelo from England to America, but then lost the trail. It was thought that Cantelo might have journeyed to the U.S. to try and interest the U. S. Army in his machine gun. To add to the mystery, a large amount of money from Cantelo’s bank account suddenly went missing.

In the meantime, Hiram Maxim had traveled from America to England to try and interest the British Army in his machine gun. Seeing a picture in the newspaper of Maxim and his gun, Cantelo’s grown children were sure Maxim was their father, and that he had for some reason changed his identity to Hiram Maxim. 

The physical likeness of the two men was uncanny, so much so that Cantelo’s two sons even confronted Maxim in a train station, asking him why he had deserted their family and changed his name. Completely flabbergasted by the accusation, Maxim was eventually able to prove that he was not Cantelo by producing U.S. Census records and a copy of a church registry. Even so, Cantelo’s family remained unconvinced, believing that William Cantelo and Hiram Maxim were, in fact, one and the same person. The unsolved mystery continues yet today.

“I believe Maxim and Cantelo were two different people,” said Wicklund. “However, there still remains a controversy over what happened to Cantelo. There was once even a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio program aired on the topic.”

If William Cantelo did emigrate to America, he never returned to England and was never heard from again. And his machine gun essentially disappeared with him.       

History sometimes is stranger than fiction. Such is the case with Hiram Maxim and William Cantelo, two lookalike inventors, unknowingly working on the same invention at the same time, an ocean apart. Their story remains one of the great mysteries of firearms history.


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