By Barry Sturk
The small New England town of Dover-Foxcroft, Maine would appear to be a most unlikely place to hold a military firearms shoot and expo to most people. But what most people don’t know is that the hills surrounding the Dover-Foxcroft area are no stranger to machine gunfire. In fact, even before any battlefield had heard the reverberating echo of gunfire back in the 1880’s, the Dexter, Dover-Foxcroft area of Maine was host to this country’s, and the world’s, first ever true machine gun fire. It was on a small hill overlooking Lake Wassookeag in the early 1880’s that an inventor from Maine called Hiram Stevens Maxim shot one of the world’s first machine guns.
Hiram Stevens Maxim was born on February 5, 1840, in the small town of Orneville, Maine, just outside of Dover-Foxcroft. At the very early age of 15, he made his first prototype of a makeshift machine gun out of wood and submitted it to a gun maker. Although he expressed interest in the concept, he felt it would be much too costly to manufacture at that time.
Throughout the years that followed, Hiram Maxim continued to dream and work on his idea of a fully automatic firearm. It was not until July 16,1883 that his dream was finally realized with the world’s first truly fully automatic firearm called appropriately, the “Forerunner.”
The Forerunner was comprised of a blowback system that featured a hydraulically dampened, and spring returned breech block. The ammunition was fed by a continuous belt of rimless cartridges that was unheard of at that time, also specially designed by Maxim. The Forerunner was a large and very cumbersome machine-gun that wasn’t much to look at and never had the opportunity to be proven battle worthy. But the fact remained, the world had now got a glimpse of it’s first true “machine-gun” from a little known man called Hiram Stevens Maxim, from the obscure New-England state of Maine.
Now more than one hundred and ten years later the hills around Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, are once again filled with the distinctive sound of machine-gun fire when the Hiram Maxim Historical Society holds it’s annual Northeast Military Shoot & Expo on the third weekend of July of each year.
Each year, on the third weekend of July, fellow machine-gunners from all over the country and some enthusiasts from as far away as England start converging on the little New-England town of Dover-Foxcroft , for what most people who attend call one of the most exciting and fastest growing machine-gun events in the country. Some of the people who make this yearly pilgrimage start arriving as early as the Wednesday before the event in hopes of securing a coveted site at the limited camping area within the gate. Other people arrive early in hopes of have some time to visit the area were Hiram Maxim was born and see the famous lake were Hiram shot one of the world’s first machine-guns. But whatever the reason, the people that come to this event share one thing in common: their passion and love of machine guns.
The three-day event officially kicks off on Friday when the gates open at 9:00AM to the public. All shooters have to be registered and are given the safety rules of the range and their appropriate badges. The spectators, on the other hand, just have a chance to browse around the more than 100 dealer tables and military displays at the event, or maybe take a minute to sign up for a flame-thrower demo while the shooters prepare their guns for the day’s awesome firepower display.
By 10:00AM, the firing line is almost ready to rock & roll. The firing line is set up with more than 50 line positions filled with beltfeds ready to roar. The air is filled with an overwhelming feeling of anticipation as the shooters and spectators eagerly wait for the signal to open fire. The range officer calls a brief shooters meeting to go over all the safety rules one more time. This year, the official start-off comes with a few rounds from a beautifully refurbished 1943 US-M1 57mm artillery piece that was brought up to the event from Vermont. A brief pause is given while the guys with the 57mm do a quick safety check on the gun after firing and move it from the line. Then the range officer gives the call to commence fire. With an unmistakable crescendo, the line lights up with an awesome display, flames from the beltfed machine guns and sub-guns, while the cars and other targets down range blow up and catch fire as the many thousands of rounds make impact with the various pyrotechnics placed down range. The firing line stays “hot” until noontime when the shooters take a break for lunch and to do any reloading or needed repairs on their guns. During the lunch break dealers are given the opportunity to give demonstrations of their products on the line and spectators are given the opportunity to do various things, such as try their hand at a flame-thrower or make arrangements to rent a machine gun for later. The line starts up again around 1:00- 1:30 PM and goes until 5:00 PM with breaks off and on to give the shooters a chance to rest and reload.
Saturday the gates opened at the same time as the previous day – 9:00 AM sharp. This year the weather brought as perfect a day as any one could wish for. It was slightly overcast with a cool breeze, so there was no danger of the shooters and spectators over-heating.
The whole time that you are attending the Hiram Maxim Shoot, you can’t help but notice the very strict safety and security regulations that are enforced. If you talk to any of the staff, they will tell you that they have a little saying that they live by which goes, “ asking us to overlook a simple safety rule would be like asking us to compromise our entire attitude toward the value of your life”. And believe me, there is no compromising when it comes to safety. There is a doctor, fire-crew and ambulance on site at all times – just in case.
Saturday tends to be the day that the shooters look forward to the most because they will be allowed to shoot tracers in the evening until around 9:30 PM. The tracer-fire show on Saturday is truly a spellbinding thing to witness. If the shooter is proficient with his machine gun he can give the spectators a spectacular laser-like show that is truly amazing. This year on the line there seemed to be an unofficial competition among several shooters to out-do each other. A couple of times you were left wondering if there was any end to the belts that were being shot.
The whole event winds down on Sunday. In the dealer tents, most of the dealers are trying to make that last minute bargain basement deal so they don’t have to truck it all back home. Even some of the shooters are starting to wear thin as their ammunition runs out. The line shuts down around noon-time so that the various competitions can be held. The competitions include marksmanship rifle where the competitor is timed as he engages several targets at 200 yards, a belt-fed competition that is much the same, and a sub-gun competition where teams are timed as they shoot a series of bowling pins off of a table. The competitions are just recreational and are no way as competitive as NFA championship matches, but they just give the shooter a chance to win a trophy and maybe boost their ego a little while have a load of fun.
What separates the Hiram Maxim Northeast Military Shoot and Expo from most events of its kind is the people that make it work. The Hiram Maxim Historical Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the safe and responsible use of firearms and to educating people about machine guns. All of the people that work the event do it for nothing more then the special comraderie. The members of HMHS share more than a common passion for firearms; they believe that without the freedoms that allow them to hold such an event, this country would not be free.
For more information on the Hiram Maxim Historical Society contact them at: P.O. Box 1491 Waterville, Maine 04903 or check out the web-site at http://www.hirammaxim.com.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N9 (June 1998)|