Say Hello to My Little Friend
BY PAT HILL
When Dr. Richard Gatling conceived the world’s first reliable machine gun, an invention his name would come to be identified with, he probably had no idea just how far his gun would travel, both historically and technically.
The six-barreled, hand-driv-en crank weapon that Gatling invented was patented in 1862, the second year of the Civil War. Cartridges for the weapon were gravity-fed through a hopper mounted on top of the gun, and the six barrels revolved around a central shaft. During a test run in July of that year, with officials from the state of Indiana, it was recorded that the Gatling Gun could discharge rounds “with all desirable accuracy as rapidly as 150 times a minute, and may be continued for hours, without danger…we think, of over-heating.”
Such a weapon could be operated on the battlefield with deadly effici-ency and little technical skill, but Gatling, who lived in Maryland when the Civil War began, and witnessed many of the opening moves in that conflict, is mostly recorded as having wanted to lessen the horrors of war with his invention. In a letter to the widow of the famous gunmaker Samuel Colt in 1877, Gatling expressed his feelings about his invention of the weapon (Gatling and Colt’s widow were neighbors in Hartford, Connecticut, in the 1870s, where Colt Arms was also producing Gatling Guns for the U.S. Army).
“It may be interesting to you to know how I came to invent the gun which bears my name,” Gatling wrote to Mrs. Colt. “I will tell you: In 1861, during the opening events of the war…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 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.”
Though Gatling himself expressed these thoughts regarding his gun several years after the invention of the weapon, the inventor revealed a more aggressive nature regarding his invention in an 1864 letter to President Abraham Lincoln.
“The arm in question is an invention of no ordinary character. It is regarded by all who have seen it operate as the most effective implement of warfare invented during the war,” Gatling wrote to the President, emphasizing that “it is just the thing needed to aid in crushing the present rebellion.”
Despite Gatling’s beliefs regar-ding his gun’s possibilities in bringing about the end of the Civil War, the Gatling Gun was not purchased by the Army during the conflict, though several were purchased by Maj. General Benjamin Butler, who used the guns successfully during the siege of Petersburg in 1864. Others were put into use on Union gunboats.
Though the Gatling Gun was officially adopted by the U.S. Army the year after the Civil War ended, the weapon did not see much use in the field where the Army was most occupied after that conflict: the Indian Wars on the Western frontier.
Most Army garrisons in the American West were assigned Gatling guns, designed for use on wheeled carriages and meant to be moved by horses. This limited their effectiveness in forested or rough terrain, but not so much on the Great Plains. The horse-drawn carriage-mounted Gatlings were meant to accompany large expeditions or defend fixed positions like forts and camps. Gatlings were also aimed at supporting assaults, but the weapons were not used decisively in any engagements between the Army and Native Americans. Gatling guns were used by the Army during the Red River War in Texas in 1874, and again in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) the following year.
General Custer declined the offer of Gatling guns during the Great Sioux War of 1876, believing they would slow down his 7th Cavalry’s pursuit of hostile Indians. Most historians concur that the presence of Gatling guns at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana probably wouldn’t have had much impact on the outcome of the battle, considering that Custer’s command was considerably outnumbered on that fateful day of June 25. Gatling guns were utilized at the Battle of the Clearwater in Idaho during the Nez Perce War of 1877, but they really only served to alert the Indians of the morning attack on their village.
Other nations also jumped on the Gatling gun bandwagon. Orders for the weapon came in from countries like Russia, Japan, Turkey, Spain, and Britain, but the gun’s heyday as a field gun was drawing to a close. Gatling guns garnered the most attention in the press during the Spanish-American War: a full company of Gatlings accompanied the U.S. Fifth Corps to Cuba, and the guns served their purpose well during the famous attack on San Juan Hill in 1898. Gatling guns mixed in with the attacking infantrymen and dismounted Rough Riders played a decisive part in a successful American assault on San Juan Hill.
That attack on San Juan Hill was the high point for the original Gatling gun in the American military, and the weapon was phased out of the Army’s arsenal in 1911. Other American weapons inventors (with names like Hotchkiss, Maxim, Lewis and Browning) developed the first truly automatic machine guns that replaced the Gatling guns in the field. But the Gatling gun would rise again, out of the ashes of World War II.
The Rotary Canon
The single-barreled automatic machine guns that replaced the Gatling gun had one significant drawback in an otherwise superior design: the single barrels of the guns would overheat with prolonged use. The answer was in the multi-barreled approach utilized by the Gatling gun. In 1946, the General Electric Company received a contract from the military called the “Vulcan Project,” aimed at high-speed weaponry for aircraft use. The Vulcan M61 20 millimeter Gatling gun, a six-barreled electronic rotary canon capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute, was the result of 10 years of research and development, and began being deployed in American military aircraft in the mid- to late-1950s.
In the 1960s, the Gatling gun underwent another change meant for airborne use, and a weapon meant not to replace the Vulcan M61 but to complement it was developed: the M134 Machine Gun, better known as the mini-gun. This weapon also incorporates six barrels, chambered for the 7.62 NATO round. The mini-gun also features a selective fire system, enabling the weapon to fire at either 2,000 or 4,000 rounds per minute. The M61 and the M134 have both seen considerable wartime service on both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
The U.S. Navy employs the most advanced Gatling gun weapons system, the Phalanx MK-15 Close-in-Weapons System, defined by the Navy as “a terminal defense against anti-ship missiles that have penetrated other fleet defenses.” Search-and-track radar and a digital computer system, combined with an M61A1 Gatling gun capable of sending out an intense barrage of 20 millimeter projectiles, is intended to destroy incoming missiles with a virtual shower of bullets. Detection of an incoming missile by the system automatically activates it.
The Gatling gun has certainly seen a change since the Civil War, and Richard Gatling, who died in 1903, would probably be quite surprised to learn that the weapon he developed still serves in active duty.
The Gatling gun has been chambered in 29 different calibers for 25 countries during its history, from the .58 caliber paper cartridge used in the Civil War to the 20 millimeter anti-missile rounds the U.S. uses in modern computerized gun systems.
A Gatling gun now on display at Action Pawn, on North 7th Street in Bozeman, is a replica of the original built by the Battery Gun Company of Michigan. The weapon on display fires the same .45 Colt round used in Colt’s Single Action Army revolvers, and utilizes the hopper-style ammu-nition feed system of original models. Though the tripod-mounted weapon is a reproduction, it echoes the history of the “camel guns,” the shorter-barreled, lighter, model 1874 featured in an old engraved adver-tisement as it is being shot from the back of a camel. It is not known, though, if a Gatling Gun was ever actually fired from a camel.