In 1862, Richard Jordan Gatling invented a crank-operated, multi-barrel rotary pistol that could fire up to 200 rounds per minute. Used only a few times during the Civil War, the Gatling machine gun would later become the first successful machine gun.
Who was Richard Jordan Gatling?
Born in North Carolina in 1818, Gatling helped his father, a wealthy planter, develop better agricultural implements, tools, and machines for sowing and harvesting cotton. In 1844, shortly after obtaining his first patent for a new type of seeder, Gatling moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he continued to develop agricultural implements and machinery for growing rice and wheat. In addition to creating, marketing, and selling his inventions, Gatling also studied medicine, but never practiced medicine.
When Civil War broke out in 1861, Gatling was living in Indianapolis, Indiana. Although he was born in the South, he was a staunch supporter of the Union. After seeing not only the horrific injuries but also the widespread illness that killed so many Union soldiers during the conflict, Gatling began to think about creating a weapon more effective than the bayonets and muskets typically used in combat at the time.
In a letter to a friend written in 1877, Gatling explained his motivation for inventing the rapid-fire weapon that would bear his name: Allowing a man to do as much combat homework as a hundred would to a large extent replace the need for large armies, and therefore the exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished.
How did the Gatling gun work?
Gatling received the first patent for the new firearm on November 4, 1862. The Gatling pistol had six metal barrels arranged in a circle and mounted on a wheeled cart. As the gun operator turned the crank, a bullet entered a barrel from a magazine and then spun into the firing position. After each bullet fire, this cannon continued to move and was reloaded with another bullet.
Gatling continued to make improvements to the weapon design, but even the first version was capable of firing around 200 rounds per minute. While the first Gatling gun used paper cartridges loaded with gunpowder and .58 caliber bullets, the introduction of brass cartridges allowed later versions to fire up to 400 rounds per minute.
Use of the Gatling gun during and after the Civil War
Although efforts to invent a weapon that could fire multiple times in a row stretched back centuries when Gatling tried it, the Gatling machine gun represented a giant leap in the development of the rapid-fire machine gun. Yet despite its success in early trials, the US Army Ordnance Department refused to adopt the relatively untested new weapon during the Civil War. Benjamin F. Butler became the only Union general to purchase Gatling guns during the conflict, and at least one of the dozen weapons Butler purchased was in action during the brutal siege of Petersburg, Va., In. spring 1865.
The military officially adopted the Gatling gun in 1866, and its visibility steadily increased from there.
By the end of the 19th century, the weapon had become a terrifying symbol of power and domination. American troops used Gatling guns in their repeated campaigns against Native Americans, while British forces used them in their wars against the Zulus in Africa (1879). Beginning in the 1870s-90s, a period of widespread social unrest in the United States, law enforcement officers and state militias in the United States used Gatling guns in their violent clashes with workers in strike.
The enduring legacy of the Gatling gun
Richard Gatling died in 1903 at the age of 85. He had obtained a total of 43 patents throughout his life, for devices ranging from a steam tractor to an improved flush toilet. Meanwhile, his most famous invention faced increasing competition from new repeating firearms based on the recoil mechanism rather than rotating barrels. By the time World War I broke out, the Gatling machine gun had been discarded in favor of the first fully automatic machine gun, invented by Hiram Stevens Maxim, a native of Maine, England in the 1880s.
While Gatling’s initial motivation may have been to reduce the violence and bloodshed of war, the smaller but highly effective automatic weapons inspired by his innovation undoubtedly made war more devastating than ever. The reputation of the Gatling gun resurfaced after World War II, when it was used as a model for the Vulcan minigun, commonly mounted on American helicopter gunships during the Vietnam War.
Julia Keller. The Terrible Wonder of Mr. Gatling: The Gun That Changed Everything & The Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It. (Viking, 2008)
Kelsey D. Atherton. “Union soldiers fired this primitive machine gun during the Civil War.” Popular science, August 22, 2013.
Philippe Van Doren Stern. “Doctor Gatling and his gun.” American heritage, October 1957.