Machine gun, automatic weapon of small calibre that is capable of sustained rapid fire. Most machine guns are belt-fed weapons that fire from 500 to 1,000 rounds per minute and will continue to fire as long as the trigger is held back or until the supply of ammunition is exhausted. The machine gun was developed in the late 19th century and has profoundly altered the character of modern warfare
Modern machine guns are classified into three groups. The light machine gun, also called the squad automatic weapon, is equipped with a bipod and is operated by one soldier; it usually has a box-type magazine and is chambered for the small-calibre, intermediate-power ammunition fired by the assault rifles of its military unit. The medium machine gun, or general-purpose machine gun, is belt-fed, mounted on a bipod or tripod, and fires full-power rifle ammunition. Through World War II the term “heavy machine gun” designated a water-cooled machine gun that was belt-fed, handled by a special squad of several soldiers, and mounted on a tripod. Since 1945 the term has designated an automatic weapon firing ammunition larger than that used in ordinary combat rifles; the most widely used calibre is .50 inch or 12.7 mm, although a Soviet heavy machine gun fired a 14.5-millimetre round.