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Helge Palmcrantz and the Swedish Machine Gun, Олсон А. (Stockholm)

Департамент культуры Минобороны России Российская Академия ракетных и артиллерийских наук Военно-исторический музей артиллерии, инженерных войск и войск связи Война и оружие Новые исследования и материалы Труды Восьмой Международной научно-практической конференции 17–19 мая 2017 года 

Часть III
© ВИМАИВиВС, 2017
© Коллектив авторов, 2017
© СПбГУПТД, 2017

This article is about the Swedish machine gun which was invented by Engineer Helge Palmcrantz at the end of 19th century. He also  designed other machine guns with different number of barrels, often referred in English sources as “The Nordenfelt Machine Gun”. 

The period was dominated by many other Swedish inventors. On a collection of stamps published in 1976 Helge Palmcrantz was picked out as one of a few, such as the telephone inventor Lars-Magnus Ericsson although Palmcrantz is not as well remembered today as Ericsson or Gustaf de Laval. The latter was inventor of dairy machinery and steam turbines. John Ericsson made success with the iron-hulled steamship USS Monitor and the progress of the propeller design. As a matter of fact very few Swedes recognize Palmcrantz’s name. In 1880 a brand new factory opened at the site Karlsvik in Stockholm. Aktiebolaget Palmcrantz & Co manufactured different types of Helge Palmcrantz’s machine guns, out of which the particular Swedish machine gun model of 1875 was one. This article will focus on discussing the guns produced in this facility. Under what circumstances were these weapons produced? Other issue such as the use of the weapons in battles and conflicts is also discussed.

A prototype of the Palmcrantz machine gun was displayed in the rebuilt and reopened permanent exhibition at the Army Museum in Stockholm in 2014. This project was inspired by a lack of knowledge about the newly displayed object. It felt quite unsatisfying having an item on display without a sufficient back ground history. My research has developed into a book project and the main aim is to examine this deadly weapon, its prototype and tell the socio-political history of a Swedish machine gun. I will further plot the effort of how Swedish inventors and entrepreneurs in  the late 1800s manufactured and sold this exquisite machine gun. In the conclusion of this article I will elaborate on the question whether the machine gun of the 1870s was indeed the start of Sweden´s modern era of arms trade. The sources are based on archive documents, Army museum collection and newspaper articles. The inventor of the Swedish machine gun was a young Swedish civil engineer born in 1842, Helge Palmcrantz, who from 1877 successfully cooperated with the more famous entrepreneur and inventor Thorsten Nordenfelt, also a Swede but stationed in London. His company “The Nordenfelt Guns & Ammunition Co Ltd” had its office right next to one of his greatest rivals Benjamin Hotchkiss, inventor of the famous machine guns produced later on in France. It must have been challenging having a competitor just next door. Also the Stockholm factory owner Theodor Winborg was an important person in the beginning. He took Palmcrantz under his wings and both believed an invested in the young engineer’s ideas. Palmcrantz married Winborg’s sister Susanna in 1874. All at once the two professionals became brothers in law. 

Illustration 1: Copyright Stockholm City Museum 

Palmcrantz & Co 1880

In the Stockholm factory at Karlsvik, one of the largest manufacturing facilities in the Sweden, 321workers produced machine guns and mowers, another of his inventions.1 Originally the factory started as a weaving millbut reopened with Palmcrantz himself as the foreman and Winborg owner of the new weapon factory.

A small railway led to the small dock by the water where the guns and products could be shipped to other parts of the country. As an example the guns were sent from Stockholm to Gothenburg before they were sent off to London. The workers had modern equipment and worked between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The work was heavy and the noise from the machines was loud. Close to the facilities were houses with small gardens for the workers. The neat surroundings were very uncommon in that sense; especially since most parts of the rest of the city were dirty and poor. Some of the employees later on developed their own ideas, such as Rudolf Kjellman who also produced a machine gun in 1910, although automatic. 

Illustration 2: Copyright National Museum of Science and Technology, Stockholm

Helge Palmcrantz made several prototypes out of which two are preserved in the Army Museum collections in Stockholm. One of them, a machine gun with10 barrels centred on its axis from 1872, is on display at the museum’s second floor.2

The gun was inspired by an American machine gun from the previous decade. The Gatling Gun was invented in the 1860s, introduced during the American Civil War and was quite similar to Palmcrantz’s early prototype. What was new was the increased efficiency and performance of the  Palmcrantz weapon. The prototype was hand operated with a crank and firing around 300 rounds per minute. The gun was an experimental version probably trialled in Norway in October 1872 by the Swedish-Norwegian Artillery Commission.3 Norway was forced into a union with Sweden in 1814 and consequently had a joint commission in artillery matters until the union dissolved in 1905. In this test Palmcrantz competed with Ludvig Nobel. Ludvig was the brother of the Swedish dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, who also developed machine guns in Saint Petersburg. The Ludvig Nobel gun did not stand the trials which Palmcrantz won and could continue with his development of the machine gun. Some of the Nobel machine guns are on the other hand still on display at the National Museum of Military History in Sofia. 

Illustration 3: Photo: Army Museum, Stockholm, AM 36705

The ten barreled Swedish machine gun

One year later Palmcrantz patented the Swedish Machine Gun model of 1875 with ten barrels positioned in a flat row side by side. In shooting trials it competed with some of the world’s greatest machine guns at the time. It was one of the most advanced when it came to getting as much firepower as possible out of multi-barrelled guns. This model was Sweden’s first adopted machine gun and it was hand operated with a lever. It was sometimes called a volley gun because of the multi barrelled hand operated construction and some might disagree in calling it a machine gun. In those days these weapons were often called mitraille uses, originally a French term. Mitraille had the same meaning as grapeshot.

The model of 1875 was a part of the defence at Swedish fortresses as position artillery to prevent enemies attacking from the moats. A few of the guns were also positioned on ships of the Swedish navy. If no interruptions occurred it fired over 400 rounds per minute, quite unusual at the time. In a certain British trial in 1882 it fired 3 000 rounds in three minutes and three seconds without interruptions.4

The main problem in using machine guns during these years was both to decide in what situations the weapons should be used and also how to make them function during hard circum stances, without malfunctions and devastating interruptions in battle. The machine guns were introduced both in the 1860´s American Civil War and also during the later FrancoPrussian War without any major instant progress in the development of warfare. The guns proved themselves efficient in battle much later. Due to the domestic trials the Swedish army did not purchase many of the  1875 weapons. In total they ordered around 20 of them but still was a bit uncertain of how and where to use the new invention.5 The machine gun on the other hand interested other great powers such as France and Great Britain. There was still no major interest in the US directly after the American Civil War. Europe was the expanding market, probably depending on imperialistic goals shown in an example later. 

Illustration 4:Copyright Army Museum, Stockholm, AM 36748 

Nordenfelt’s letters

Thorsten Nordenfelt and Helge Palmcrantz corresponded frequently during their period of co-operation. Until now I have studied 120 letters written by Nordenfelt in London and sent to Palmcrantz in Stockholm from late 1870s. 

Illustration 5: Copyright National Museum of Science and Technology, Stockholm

All are archived at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm. Unfortunately wecan only see what Nordenfelt wrote to Palmcrantz and not the other way around. The whereabouts of Palmcrantz´s letters are still unknown. However Nordenfelt obviously answers to a set of invisible questionsand gives Palmcrantz input on how to improve the inventions. In another example Nordenfelt sent barrels and other manufacturing parts to Stockholm where the machine guns were put together. The Nordenfelt letters demonstrate that the development of the machine guns was a co-operation between the two and not only a work of Palmcrantz’s genius mind. In most articles and literature about these particular machine guns, authors usually call them “The Nordenfelt gun” and tend to forget Palmcrantz’s fundamental contributions. According to the letters Nordenfelt also had many ideas of how to elaborate a better product. In some letters he is very angry with Palmcrantz and argues that he focuses too much on managing the Factory and spends too little time as a developer of new magnificent inventions.6 Nordenfelt further described shooting trial sin different places in Europe, sometimes taking place after a lunch along with a glass of champagne. He travelled to distant locations promoting Palmcrantz’s machine guns. In the trials bullets clattered for endless hours, sometimes with insignificant and expensive results. The writer showed in expletives what he thought of the lingering British machine gun orders. Nordenfelt also wrote about occasions like when he was giving his coat to the now old competitor Gatling during a very cold day on the damp test site. It seemed to be important for him to give the impression of being a gentleman after all.

Death of an engineer

We sometimes tend to forget that there are people who have constructed and built these horrible weapons. What do we know about them? Palmcrantz was not only a gun or mower constructor; he also designed other things like a calculator for subtraction, heating systems for hospitals, bridges and musical instruments. To my surprise I also found over thousands of pages of poetry in the archives written by Palmcrantz. He loved music and cared for his workers. Suddenly something very unexpectedly happened short after the huge factory in Stockholm just had opened. Only half a year later Helge Palmcrantz got ill. He suffered from major problems with inflammatory bowel disease and was in bed for almost a week after that and then, he died only 38 years old on November 22in 1880.7 This of course led to serious challenges for the factory. The engineering industry was left without its creative force all at once. According to one of his fellow engineers Gustaf de Laval, Sweden had lost a brilliant mind and a person who gave the nation hope for the future.8 This makes one consider the machine gun as an excellent device for creating a Swedish national spirit.

4-barreled machine gun

After the death of Helge Palmcrantz, Nordenfelt was the selling promotor of the machine gun products and he also bought the factory in 1886 and changed the name to Stockholms Vapenfabrik. A hand operated 4-barrelled machine gun in calibre 25,4 mm was sold to other countries, especially the United Kingdom and was also adopted in Italy. In 1884 it was estimated that the United Kingdom had 565 Palmcrantz/Nordenfelt machine guns in its navy.9 These guns were not only products of the Stockholm factory but they were also partly produced in the Nordenfelt facilities in Enfield outside of London. Barrels were sent from London to Stockholm and the rest of the machine gun was moulded and completed. It was not only first of all the armies that were interested in the machine gun product. The new and fast torpedo boats were perfect targets for this efficient weapon. The 4-barreled machine gun 25,4 mm bullet was hard and of solid steel that could penetrate the hull of the vessels. In the Army museum collections in Stockholm we have an example of how steel plates look like after having been penetrated by steel bullets. More countries were interested in this piece of new weapon. Even Sweden´s long term archenemy Russia bought the machine guns in 1878 and later on also Turkey. In old photographs one can see how Admiral Mehmed Pasha of the Ottoman Empire is posing beside his multiple-barreled Nordenfelt machine gun.

Submarine armament

Nordenfelt also constructed Sweden’s first submarine and the second one was built in the UK and later sold to the Ottoman Empire. The machinery of the first submarine was actually built at Palmcrantz & Co in 1883 and the rest of the vessel was itself manufactured at Bolinders factory just a couple of hundred meters from there.

The second Nordenfelt submarine was equipped with a smaller2-barrelled Nordenfelt machine gun. In this picture from 1887 from Istanbul, also the machine gun can be seen on the top of the submarine “Abdül Hamid”. The 2-barreled machine gun differed in type of mechanism from  the other Palmcrantz machine guns but on the other hand had the similar design and calibre.

Nordenfelt in 1888 went further into the gun business and fusioned his company with the famous automatic machine gun inventor Hiram Maxim. Nordenfelt was soon to be outmanoeuvred from the company and fired in 1890. He later returned to Sweden and lived his last years in relative poverty compared to the luxurious life he had lived earlier in London. He died in 1920.10 One of his former employees declared that during his years in the United Kingdom Nordenfelt was called “The little king of London”. 11 

Illustration 6: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The production

How many machine guns did Palmcrantz & Co manufacture in total? We have no certain figures in detail. One of the most important documents found at the National Museum of Science and Technology stated that in 1886 the company produced 423 machine guns and 700 mowers in total. That gave total sales numbers of 1,3 million SEK (134 000 euros). However, already within a decade the 10-barreled Swedish machine gun was driven out of competition by other machine guns. The particular Swedish Machine Gun was out of production already in 1886.12

During this specific era the Swedish arms trade changed in structure. In the 1850s it was based on selling mainly ammunition, cannons, mortars and bombs. In the 1880s this changed rapidly to export small arms and in 1884 it stood for 83 % of the weapons export from Sweden.13 Palmcrantz’s inventions were a part of this change and process. This was a restart of Swedish arms trade concerning selling small arms.

We are now going to take a closer look at some of the battles in which the Palmcrantz machine gun was of importance especially for Imperial colonial powers of the late 19th century. 

Illustration 7: Copyright Army Museum, Stockholm 

Palmcrantz machine guns in battles

After Egyptian riots in Alexandria in 1882 the British Empire answered with violence and in July 11-13 aimed their weapons at the city. Especially the battleship HMS Invincible with its several Palmcrantz/Nordenfelt machine guns was of importance in the attacking of the forts of Adda and Mex which were destroyed.14 As a result to the harsh response the UK could keep Egypt under its influence (and later a formal protectorate) until 1922. In the battle of Shangani in 1893, during the First Matabele war in what now is Zimbabwe, the Palmcrantz/Nordenfelt machine guns were used again.

The guns also had a small part in Europe´s colonization of Africa in the late 1800´s. This effort would most probably have taken much longer time without these guns. The opponents in Ndebele Kingdom just had sticks, spears and old rifles. In this depiction a Nordenfelt gun is mowing down Africans in a devastating battle where the British South Africa Company killed over 1 500 Zulu warriors firstly with their Maxim, but also with the Palmcrantz machine guns. Only 4 people on the British side were reported dead.15 Clearly the history of the machine gun is about immense suffering and blood shed on behalf of those who lost the war. 

Illustration 8: Depiction Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Machine gun block and the legacy

In the Swedish context the machine guns were an important part of the manufacturing industry and the local development in a nation slowly rising from poverty. The facilities in Stockholm had a major impact in the local settlement, stretching several hundred meters from what now is a quite busy part of the central city close to the water. In the early 20th century the factory was closed and soon new buildings erased all tracks of past activities. The only memory left from the old gun factory today is the street sign of Kvarteretkulsprutan, Machine gun block. The cultural landscape has today disappeared and fallen into oblivion.

Even so there are still traces of the Palmcrantz machine guns. The guns were used in UK, France, Italy, Spain and Austria-Hungary to mention a few European countries. They are still on display in museums in Australia, the Netherlands, Sudan, Turkey and the USA.

Alfred Nobel’s legacy is well known and also his testimony that led to the Nobel Prize. His quite destructive invention, the dynamite, resulted in an effort to promote science for the future of mankind. On Helge Palmcrantz tombstone outside Stockholm we see how he wanted to be remembered and what was his legacy. The Swedish inscription reads “Inventor of the Swedish Machine Gun”. It presents a distant echo of a new era in Sweden´s arms trade. And a small trace of his ambitions that were ended at a much too early date.


Most English speaking readers know of the old Swedish machine guns as “The Nordenfelt Gun”. Now the inventor Helge Palmcrantz is introduced in the development of the guns. Military arms trade has a long history in Sweden, stretching back to the 17th Century. Without a doubt the Palmcrantz and Nordenfelt machine guns was a boost for the export of Swedish small arms in the late 19th century. Between the years 1875 to 1889 the Palmcrantz & Co/Stockholms Vapenfabrik manufactured weapons valued at8 636 000 SEK (892 000 euros). The facilities had as much as 321 workers in 1881 and 193 modern machines.16 Thanks to the recently found documentation from the archives at National Museum of Science and Technology and Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) we can see how many people who worked in this company and in numbers what they produced. As a result of the export we still see the weapons on display at museums worldwide. Not only were they used on test sites but also in battles in for example Matabeleland and against Alexandria. During a few years the Swedish machine guns was one of the most advanced ways of getting as much firepower as possible out of multi-barreled weapons. We must also remember that Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe in the late 1800´s and nearly one fifth of the population, 1,3 million Swedes immigrated to the United States until the beginning of the 20th century. These inventions were therefore of importance. Not only did they make the engineers rich but more importantly they also gave common people work and self-confidence in a country that many wanted to abandon.


Royal Institute of Technology Archives, Stockholm

National Museum of Science and Technology Archives, Stockholm

Riksarkivet (RA), Kammarkollegiets Årsberättelser, Serie 4, 1815-1890

Artilleri-Tidskrift, Stockholm 1877

Aftonbladet 1872-11-06

Åbo Posten 1882-07-19


Chinn, George M. The Machine Gun – History, Evolution and Development of Manual, Automatic, and Airborne Repeating Weapons, Washington 1951 

Ferguson, Niall, Empire: the rise and demise of the British world order and the lessons for global power, New York 2004

Longstaff, Major F.V., The book of the Machine Gun, London 1917

Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, band 27, Stockholm 1991, band 28, Stockholm 1994

1 Redogörelse för ett i national ekonomiskt syfte för et a get be sök vid Aktiebolaget Palmcrantz &Co:s verkstad i Karlsvik 1881, MS5a X, Manuscript collection, Royal Institute of Technology Archives.

2 Army Museum collection Stockholm, AM 36705.

3 Aftonbladet 1872-11-06.

4 George M. Chinn, The Machine Gun – History, Evolution and Development of Manual, Automatic, and Airborne Repeating Weapons, Washington 1951, p. 110.

5 Verksamheten vid styckebruk, faktorier, artilleriverkstäder m.m. för kronans räkning 1875 och 1876. Artilleri-Tidskrift (1877), pp. 47-50, here 47 and 49.

6 Volume E1:39 November 1879, Helge Palmcrantz Archives , National Museum of Science and Technology Archives.

7 Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, Band 28, Stockholm 1994, p. 595.

8 Volume F1:1.04, undated, Letter to Carl Viktor Murén, Thorsten Nordenfelt Archives, National Museum of Science and Technology Archives.

9 Major F.V. Longstaff, The book of the Machine Gun, London 1917, p. 33.

10 Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, Band 27, Stockholm 1991, p. 229.

11 Volume F1:1.06. Om Nordenfelts undervattensbåtar,1924-08-01, Thorsten Nordenfelt Archives, National Museum of Science and Technology Archives.

12 Volume F1:2, Palmcrantz & Co förår 1886, Helge Palmcrantz Archives, National Museum of Science and Technology Archives.

13 Riksarkivet (RA), Kammarkollegiets Årsberättelser, Serie 4, 1881-1884.

14 Åbo Posten 1882-07-19.

15 Niall Ferguson, Empire: the rise and demise of the British world order and the lessons for global power, New York 2004, p. 188.

16 Serie MS5a X, Redogörelse för ett be sök vid Stockholms Vapenfabrik 1890, Manuscript collection, Royal Institute of Technology Archives.