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Doctor Gatling And His Gun

June 2024
10min read

Professing humanitarian motives, he gave gangsters a word for their artillery and the world its first practicable machine gun.

All was not quiet along the Potomac early in 1862. The 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, under command of Colonel John W. Geary of Kansas fame, was guarding a 24-mile stretch of the river, and there were occasional skirmishes between the opposing armies. On February 7, Geary shelled Harpers Ferry, and a few weeks later marched in and recaptured the town from the Confederates.

At some time between January 2 and February 24, 1862, somewhere along the shores of the Potomac, one of the unknown Confederate soldiers who was killed in these minor skirmishes may have been the world’s first victim of machine-gun fire. Geary’s regiment had two strange-looking new weapons into which cylindrical steel containers loaded with Minié balls, powder charges, and primed with percussion caps, were fed through a hopper while the single-barreled gun was operated by a hand crank. The new weapon, whose inventor is now unknown, was officially named the Union Repeating Gun but everyone, including President Lincoln, who had urged the Army to adopt it, called it the “coffee-mill” gun because it looked like an old-fashioned coffee grinder.

Geary’s machine guns were first fired in actual battle in the Shenandoah Valley at Middleburg, Virginia, on March 29. A few weeks later an army officer, speaking in New York at Cooper Union, said: “One of these guns was brought to bear on a squadron of cavalry at 800 yards, and it cut them to pieces terribly, forcing them to fly.” But Geary was not satisfied with the new guns’ performance, finding them “inefficient and unsafe to the operators,” so he returned them to the Washington Arsenal, where they were later disposed of as old metal for eight dollars each.

Lincoln’s efforts to persuade his slow-thinking, slow-moving Army Ordnance Department to adopt more modern weapons have been described by Robert V. Bruce in Lincoln and the Tools of War. After the failure of the coffee-mill gun Lincoln stopped backing machine guns and concentrated on repeating rifles. But inventors kept working on the problem which had fascinated mechanically minded men ever since Leonardo da Vinci had made a sketch for a multi-barreled “organ gun.” In 1718 an Englishman named James Puckle was granted a patent for what, on paper, looks like a workable machine gun. But since Puckle’s patent drawing shows that his gun was supposed to fire round bullets against Christians and square ones against infidels, there is some doubt about his seriousness.

The problem kept tantalizing inventors for years, and some of them came up with ingenious—but not very practicable—solutions for it. One truly remarkable patent was granted in 1863 to James O. Whitcomb of New York for a four-barreled rapid-fire gun which was designed to be fired electrically. It was an intricate bit of mechanism which required split-second tuning that would never have stood up under battlefield conditions. The gun never got beyond the patent-drawing stage, but the inventor’s boldness of thinking put him far ahead of his time.

The Confederates, too, became interested in the machine gun. One of them, Captain D.R. Williams, of Covington, Kentucky, built a rather clumsy repeating one-pounder that was first used at the Battle of Seven Pines (or Fair Oaks) on May 31 and June 1, 1862. Several batteries of these guns saw service during the war. A few other primitive rapid-fire guns were used by the Confederates in isolated instances. One of them, a forerunner of the famous Lewis machine gun of the First World War, was invented by the father of William C. Gorgas, whose sanitary work in suppressing yellow fever made the digging of the Panama Canal possible.

The first practical machine gun, the quick-firing weapon that was to change the tactics of warfare throughout the entire world, was invented by a southerner, Dr. Richard J. Gatling, who had been born in North Carolina but who later moved to the North. His father had been an inventor before him, and Gatling kept creating new devices all his long life.

Like many other inventors of deadly weapons who believed that they could discourage the human race from fighting by making warfare ever more terrible, Gatling considered his motives humanitarian. In a letter written twelve years after the Civil War he said: “In 1861 … (residing at the time in Indianapolis, Ind.) I witnessed almost daily the departure of troops to the front and the return of the wounded, sick and dead: The most of the latter lost their lives, not in battle, but by sickness and exposure incident to the service. It occurred to me if I could invent a machine—a gun—which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be greatly diminished.”

This early proponent of push-button warfare went to work and by November 4, 1862, was granted his first patent for a machine gun with six revolving barrels turned by a crank. Since his first model, like the coffee-mill gun, used loaded steel containers, it was an improvement over that pioneer weapon only in that its multi-barrel principle kept the Gatling from overheating or from going out of commission if one barrel jammed. When Gatling redesigned his gun to take the newly developed metallic cartridge his weapon became the highly efficient, death-dealing machine that eventually was to make its inventor rich and famous. He finally reached popular immortality in gangsters’ speech in which any repeating hand weapon became, by the linguistic process known as apocope, a “gat.”

But the Gatling gun was so slow to win acceptance by the Army Ordnance Department that it never became important in the Civil War. The few Gatlings used saw service only because individual commanders procured them—sometimes with private funds.

Ben Butler was one of these commanders. He got a dozen Gatlings for his troops, and at least one of them is said to have been in action at Petersburg in the spring of 1865. (A very early Gatling gun bearing Serial No. 2. now in the West Point Museum, is probably one of the guns Butler bought.) The Navy was generally more progressive in its attitude toward new weapons than the Army, and Admiral David Dixon Porter ordered a Gatling sent to Cairo, Illinois. The Gatling gun’s usefulness in protecting boats and bridges was quickly appreciated, and records show that they were mounted on various kinds of watercraft and at bridgeheads. Three of them were brought to New York to guard the New York Times building on Park Row during the bloody Draft Riots of July, 1863.

On February 18, 1864. Gatling wrote to Lincoln to explain the virtues of his gun and to ask for his assistance in getting it put to wider use. But by this time the harassed President had lost interest in machine guns. And in a few weeks he was to hand over the responsibility of deciding about the Union Army’s strategy and equipment to Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln therefore ignored Gatling’s letter, and the gun lost its chance of turning the tide of battle in the Civil War.

But perhaps the real reason why the Gatling gun did not have more influence on Civil War history is that its southern-horn inventor was found to be a member of the secret Copperhead organizations that were threatening to take over the border and north-central states for the Confederacy. It was revealed, too, that he was offering his weapon for sale to anyone who would buy it—and this meant not only foreign governments but the Confederacy as well. One can hardly blame Gatling, who had been constantly rebuffed by the Army Ordnance Department, but he became very unpopular with American military men until the war was over. Then, on August 24, 1866. the Gatling gun was officially adopted by the United States Army, which ordered 100 of them. Gatling had these built by the Colt Patent Fire Arms Company, which manufactured all his guns from then on.

Once the official seal of American governmental approval was placed on his weapon, Gatling was in a good position to sell it to foreign countries. He did fairly well with the British, the Austrians, with various South American governments, and with the Russians (who called the gun the Gorloff after the general who adopted it), but he could not interest the French, who were busy inventing their own mitrailleuse.

This French volley gun with 25 stationary barrels using paper cartridges was based on an entirely different principle from Gatling’s revolving gun, and it was developed under such great secrecy that when it was sent into battle during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the soldiers who were supposed to use it had never been taught how to operate it. As a result the German armies rolled over France, and rapid-firing weapons were looked at skeptically by the military experts of the world for a generation to come. Among those who saw the failure of the French mitrailleuse in battle was General Philip H. Sheridan.

In 1876, when one of Sheridan’s close personal friends and top cavalry commanders, General George A. Custer, led more than 250 doomed men of the famous 7th Cavalry into the Montana hill country to search for hostile Sioux Indians, he left behind a battery of Gatlings. If he had taken the then greatly improved machine guns with him the outcome of the much-discussed battle at the Little Big Horn would surely have been very different. But Custer thought that the wheeled gun carriages drawn by the condemned horses assigned to them would slow him down in the rough country through which he had to travel. He also is said to have believed that the use of so devastating a weapon would cause him to lose face with the Indians.

Two years later, however, three Gatling guns were used in a battle against the Shoshones and Bannocks, who were in a seemingly impregnable position on top of a bluff near the Umatilla Agency. The Indians were quickly driven off the heights by the Gatlings’ hail of bullets that swept along the crest and scattered the terrified warriors by their drumming rattle.

During the last part of the nineteenth century the Gatling’s devastating firepower was tested many times against poorly armed natives in various parts of the world. During the Russo-Turkish War, a Captain Litvinoff, who operated one of his regiment’s two guns, wrote what is perhaps the first account by an actual participant of the Gatling’s deadly might. When a horde of howling Wyonoods made a surprise attack on the Russian camp in the middle of the night, the Captain described what happened:

“Though it was dark we perceived in front of us the galloping masses of the enemy with uplifted, glittering swords. When they approached us within about twenty paces I shouted the command 'Fire!’ This was followed by a salvo of all men forming the cover and a simultaneous rattle of the two battery guns. In this roar the cries of the enemy at once became weak and then ceased altogether. … I ventured to get a look at the surrounding ground, availing myself of the first light of dawn. … At every step lay prostrated the dead bodies of the Wyonoods.”

In 1879 the British used Gatlings against the Zulus, and in one encounter a single gun mowed down 473 tribesmen in a few minutes. And in 1882, when British troops invaded Egypt after the massacre of foreigners at Alexandria, 370 men armed with a few Gatlings captured and held the city while thousands of rioters and Egyptian troops were held back for four days, overawed by “the guns that pumped lead.”

The definitive work on the subject is The Machine Gun, a four-volume work prepared for the Navy Bureau of Ordnance by Lieutenant Colonel George M. Chinn, lately of the Marine Corps. (Volumes two and three of this work are classified and not available to the public.) According to Colonel Chinn, machine guns have killed more people than any other mechanical device—including even the automobile—and the Maxim recoil movement alone has been responsible for the death of more than 8,000,000 human beings. In the First World War, he says, 92 per cent of the casualties were caused by machine guns.

According to Colonel Chinn, the Gatling Gun Company sent trained operators abroad to stage demonstrations of the weapon. And, he says: “In their enthusiasm to put on a good show, they have been known to set up their guns against the enemy of a prospective customer and repel a charge, just to show its effectiveness as an instrument of annihilation.”

It was during the Spanish-American War that Gatling guns first demonstrated their ability to win battles in which troops on both sides were equipped with modern weapons. The Spaniards had smokeless powder—something the American Army had not yet bothered to adopt because it had so much black powder on hand. As a result, Spanish marksmen could spot American soldiers each time they fired and then pick them off one by one. But even under such conditions, when their positions were revealed by clouds of smoke from the obsolete black powder, the Gatlings worked with the efficiency of riveting hammers.

Under the command of Lieutenant John H. Parker, the first soldier anywhere to appreciate the tactical power of machine guns in offensive warfare, four Gatling and two Colt machine guns were employed in the attack on Santiago, Cuba. Quick to pay tribute to the Gatlings’ newly demonstrated value in such warfare was Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, who said: “The efficiency with which the Gatlings were handled by Parker was one of the most striking features of the campaign; he showed that a first-rate officer could use machine guns, on wheels, in battle and skirmish, in attacking and defending trenches, alongside of the best troops, and to their great advantage.” After the war Parker wrote the first American machine-gun manual, which was published in 1899.

American armed forces were so neglected during the half century after 1865 that American-born inventors of military weapons could not find employment in their own country. One after another they went abroad to work for foreign governments. Yet nearly all the important machine-gun inventions were made by Americans.

In 1871 Benjamin B. Hotchkiss of Connecticut, working in France, developed a rapid-fire cannon which had revolving barrels turned by a crank like the Gatling gun. In 1884 Maine-born Hiram Stevens Maxim invented his widely used gun in England. This took advantage of the recoil of the barrel to do the loading and firing and so was the first completely automatic machine gun. Then, in the early 1890s, John Moses Browning of Utah invented an automatic weapon which made use of the discharge gases to operate the gun. Browning also spent much of his later life in Europe, for he lived and died in Belgium where his guns were manufactured.

These new automatic machine guns, many of them with single barrels cooled by a water jacket, made the manually operated Gatling seem out of date. In an effort to keep his invention alive, in 1893 Gatling developed an electric motor drive which fired his gun at the astounding rate of 3,000 rounds per minute. He also went on to build an automatic gas-operated gun, but by this time his product was meeting heavy competition throughout the world and was officially declared obsolete by the United States Army in 1911.

The Maxim recoil principle was used by all the nations engaged in the First World War. Mechanical technology in weapons design was then so far ahead of military thinking that in the early part of the war literally millions of men were slaughtered in senseless and hopeless frontal attacks against strongly held machine-gun positions. Then came several years of stalemate while the armies dug in. During this time new weapons were developed to attack troops protected by trenches and dugouts. Poison gas, tanks, and airplane bombs came into being while modern versions of old weapons like mortars and hand grenades were used to take machine-gun emplacements.

After more than half a century during which recoil and gas-operated machine guns dominated the military scene, a new and even more fearful weapon named the Vulcan was demonstrated at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in August, 1956. Its rate of fire is so rapid that it does not have the drumming effect of an ordinary machine gun, but, as one observer described it, sounds like the violent ripping of cloth. With the Vulcan, machine-gun development has completed a full circle, for the new gun is obviously patterned on Gatling’s principle.

Both weapons have a rotating cluster of barrels and are externally powered. Long experience has shown that the multi-barreled system is easier to keep cool and that external power provides constant firing even if one barrel jams. Appropriately, the new Vulcan was first demonstrated alongside a Gatling gun. Now, more than sixty years after Gatling failed to convince the Army that his electric motor-driven gun was basically better than any recoil or gas-operated machine gun, the principles of the weapon he invented at the beginning of the Civil War are being used in our latest type of rapid-fire aircraft armament.

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