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Doctor Richard Gatling ecstatically received the reports that were being sent from the Petersburg, Virginia, front regarding his eponymous weapon, a rapid-firing six-barreled beast. The “Gatling Gun” had become a favorite weapon of Major General Benjamin Butler, and Gatling enthusiastically wrote that “Ben Butler took the guns… to the Battle of Petersburg and fired them himself upon the rebels. They created great consternation and slaughter, and the news of them went all over the world….”

Gatling was engaging in a bit of exaggeration, of course, but his weapon and others similar to it did lay the gory groundwork for “great consternation and slaughter” on future battlefields. For hundreds of years before the Civil War, the typical infantryman carried a cumbersome musket that he could load and fire two to three times a minute under the best of circumstances. Inventors had tried to produce weapons that could be loaded from the breech and fired rapidly, but fragile paper cartridges and glitchy matchlock and flintlock ignition systems hampered the development of such guns.

By the mid-19th century, however, the introduction of percussion ignition and metallic cartridges increased the potential of such weapons. Such developments, coupled with the outbreak of the Civil War, invigorated American inventors’ interest in multiple-round weapons. The rapid-fire rifled caliber arms introduced during the Civil War were not true machine guns, since they did not use recoil or gas from the firing of one cartridge to load and fire another round like the automatic guns in service a half-century later, but the weapons did represent a large leap forward in firearms technology.

Doctor Josephus Requa, a Rochester, N.Y., dentist once apprenticed to the prominent gun maker William Billinghurst, was one of the first tinkerers to design a multibarrel breechloading gun after the Civil War began. He had Billinghurst make the prototype.

Billinghurst and Requa’s gun featured 25 horizontal barrels mounted on a light artillery carriage. The barrels were loaded at the breech with a “piano hinge” magazine holding a row of 25 .52-caliber brass cartridges with no integral priming, but with a hole in the base of each round. A hammer triggered by pulling a lanyard fired a percussion cap on a single centrally located nipple that detonated one round, causing the flash to pass from one cartridge to the next until all had been fired. When the chain reaction process worked properly, the barrels fired almost simultaneously.

If an operator had several loaded magazines at his disposal, he could ensure a fairly rapid rate of fire. A lever under the gun’s carriage controlled the spacing of the barrels, which could be spread apart or moved together like the fingers of a hand and raised or lowered to control fire dispersion and range.

A three-man crew at an 1861 demonstration of the “Requa Battery” in New York City fired the weapons at the rate of seven volleys, or 175 shots, per minute. In one Army test the gun’s rate of fire reached 225 shots in one minute and 15 seconds. Billinghurst and Requa claimed an “effective range of 1,200 yards,” and Army and Navy records appear to have verified that claim.

Captain Albert G. Mack, a Rochester associate of Requa who encouraged the development of the Requa Battery, wanted to be the first to deploy one in combat. In the summer of 1862, Mack raised the 18th Independent Battery, New York Light Artillery. Captain Mack intended that his “Rochester Rifle Battery” be equipped with Requa guns, a “Rochester invention.” Another Rochester unit, Captain J. Warren Barnes’ 26th Independent Battery, used Requa guns as a recruiting enticement. Both batteries were sent to the Department of the Gulf, but the Requas were sparingly used at best. The 18th’s guns were shipped south without ammunition or spare magazines, and Mack’s gunners ended up servicing 20-pounder Parrott rifled cannons.

Brigadier General William F. Barry, a hard-to-please Regular Artillery officer, tested the Requa in January 1863 and found it “extremely serviceable.” Requa guns were also used by Brig. Gen. Quincy Gillmore in Charleston, S.C. He obtained five for field testing, and they were manned by crews from the 3rd New Hampshire, 39th Illinois and 9th Maine Infantry regiments. During the siege of Battery Wagner on Morris Island, the guns were used to suppress enemy sharpshooters, cover advancing trench lines and, on at least one occasion, in support of an infantry attack by the 24th Massachusetts. A Confederate defender maintained that the Requa guns gave “very little trouble,” but a Federal officer reported that they were “used against the enemy’s sharpshooters and working parties, apparently with good effect.”

Ben Butler was an enthusiastic proponent of new military technology, and in July 1864 he ordered two Requa guns for his Army of the James, then engaged in the siege of Petersburg and Richmond. The guns were assigned to the 16th New York Heavy Artillery and were still in use in October, when an after-action report noted the “Requa gun section” lost three horses killed and three wounded.

Although the Requa proved the most combat-effective Civil War machine gun, further development of internal primers for brass cartridges quickly made the Requa Battery obsolete in the postwar years, and Dr. Requa returned to dentistry.

In contrast to the Requa, the “Union Repeating Gun” used a revolving breech to achieve rapid fire. A feeding hopper sat atop the gun’s firing mechanism, and when a handcrank was turned, internal gears forced cartridges from the hopper into grooves atop a revolving drum. The crank action then cammed the cartridge chambers against the gun’s barrel; this tripped a firing hammer and then ejected the empty cartridges activating a fan like device to blow away firing debris and cool the barrel. Users claimed the gun was capable of firing up to 120 shots a minute.

The barrel was mounted on a light artillery carriage like the Requa and could be elevated and traversed. A spare barrel, which could be quickly changed in case the original overheated, was included with each gun. The Union gun’s steel cartridge chambers could also be reloaded by hand with conventional .58-caliber paper rifle-musket cartridges when fitted with a nipple primed with a percussion cap.

Several men—Wilson Ager, Edward Nugent and William Palmer—battled over taking credit for the Union Gun’s development and patent rights. But it was actually a salesman, J.D. Mills, who displayed a prototype to President Abraham Lincoln in June 1861. After a look at the gun’s hopper feeding device, Lincoln reputedly dubbed the weapon the “Coffee Mill” gun, a nickname that stuck.

Arsenal tests of the Coffee Mill before the president, generals and other dignitaries were impressive, and Brig. Gen. Joseph Mansfield requested the guns for the defensive works around Washington. There were some early indications of potential problems with the weapon—for example, the mainspring of a Coffee Mill gun independently purchased by the technologically adventurous General Butler broke in testing. Despite those problems, the Ordnance Department ordered 50 of the guns in December 1861.

In January 1862, two of them were issued to Colonel John W. Geary’s 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, which allegedly used them on Rebel cavalry in March near Middleburg, Va. The only evidence of what apparently was the first use of a machine gun in combat, however, is a casual remark by one of the regiment’s captains citing their effectiveness. In seeming contradiction, Colonel Geary returned his Coffee Mill guns in April, describing them as “inefficient, and unsafe to use.”

Despite Geary’s opinion, Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of that year, requested 16 Coffee Mill guns, but they did not arrive before his June resignation. Rebel General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson appears to have captured the lot at Harpers Ferry in September 1862, but what happened to them after that is unknown. They were apparently not considered a vital asset by their captors.

A number of Coffee Mill guns went to the Virginia Peninsula with the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1862. One report cites the 56th New York Volunteers as fielding “a large sized rifle with a hopper and machinery at the breach, which loads and fires by turning a crank….” When the 56th advanced up the Peninsula following the fall of Yorktown, however, the regiment left its Coffee Mill behind. Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania made sure that many of his state’s infantry regiments approached Richmond armed with machine guns. A private in the 83rd Pennsylvania wrote that “all the Pennsylvania regiments have them.” The 49th Pennsylvania employed a Coffee Mill at a skirmish at Golding’s Farm on June 28, 1862.

Federal Lieutenant Edward Burd Grubb recalled that at the June 27, 1862, Battle of Gaines’ Mill, “lying between the Fourth and Third [New Jersey Volunteer Infantry] regiments…was a battery of seven machine guns…called the Union Coffee Mill Guns.” Lieutenant Grubb went on to say that the guns deployed with the 1st New Jersey Brigade were loaded with combustible Johnson and Dow paper cartridges that were made with paper saturated with a chemical that would cause them to burn, and the cartridges had also been issued to the brigade’s infantrymen at Gaines’ Mill. Using the Johnson and Dow rounds with the Coffee Mill made sense, since loading with conventional musket cartridges would take longer and might result in misfires if the paper was not completely removed.

The fate of the New Jersey Brigade’s Coffee Mill guns at Gaines’ Mill remains murky. It is unclear whether they were successfully withdrawn from the battlefield or captured by the Rebels as the brigade retreated. Other than Lieutenant Grubb’s recollection, information is scant.

Reports on the effectiveness of the guns on the Peninsula are ambivalent as well. A soldier in the 49th Pennsylvania characterized his regiment’s Coffee Mill as doing “good work,” but Colonel E.C. Pratt of the 31st New York opined that the gun issued to his regiment was “very defective in several particulars.” Colonel Charles Kingsbury, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s chief ordnance officer, reported that the field performance of the coffee mill was “not equal to the results obtained at the Washington Arsenal” tests.

The main difficulties of the Coffee Mill gun appear to have been barrel overheating, failures to feed ammunition and gas escaping from the breech during firing, which reduced the weapon’s velocity. These problems were, as Kingsbury noted, not initially evident but appeared during use in the field, providing an instructive case study in apparently innovative ordnance. Initial prototype weapon tests could not predict results in combat, a fact that is often disregarded by modern writers criticizing the conservatism of the Union Ordnance Department— which, in at least some cases, indicated good sense.

Although the Coffee Mill guns were seldom used after the Peninsula campaign, J.D. Mills continued to push his product, staging demonstrations for state officials and foreign governments. Venezuela reportedly ordered one gun, and the U.S. Navy gave the Coffee Mill a limited and apparently unsuccessful trial on western riverboats. In March 1863, Scientific American reported that Coffee Mill guns had “proved of no practical value” and noted that surviving specimens were in storage in Washington.

Despite the bad reviews, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, a commander attuned to tactical innovation, ordered 10 of the guns that summer, but they did not arrive before his September 1863 Chickamauga disaster. In February 1864, General Butler, still seeking a secret weapon for his Army of the James, requested 10 for use on river patrol boats.

The third machine gun to see active service, and the only one to survive the war as a viable weapons system, was the Gatling gun, the invention of Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling, a North Carolinia dentist who had moved north before the war. Gatling’s invention, patented in November 1862, shared a hopper feed, crank-action revolving breech and steel cartridge chambers with the Coffee Mill. He claimed, however, that his gun was not “the inferior arm known as the ‘coffee mill gun.’” His significant design departure was replacing the earlier weapon’s single barrel with six barrels revolving around a central axis, reducing barrel heating and raising the rate of fire. Like most firearms ideas, however, the concept of revolving barrels was not a new one. A similar concept had been patented in 1861 by Ezra Ripley, who never followed through on his idea.

Gatling contracted with a Cincinnati firm to manufacture six guns, which were destroyed in a factory fire in 1862. In 1863 he had 13 more weapons produced at another foundry and shipped to Baltimore, where his agent failed to interest the military. By that time, government officials were wary of buying or even testing any new wonder weapons.

Enter again General Butler, who happened to be in Baltimore at the time. The general took some of the guns to Petersburg, and Butler actually fired the Gatling personally. While it worked well, it did not quite generate “consternation and slaughter” among the Rebels as Gatling exuberantly had claimed. It did seem to make them angry, though. On May 30, 1864, Lieutenant J.B. Morris of the 4th New Jersey Battery wrote his friend James S. Yard that, “Gen. Butler brought one his favorite Gatling guns, which throws 200 balls per minute, in this Battery on Friday, and pointing it through one of the embrasures, began to ‘turn the crank.’ This drew the fire of the Rebs on us, and one captain and a private were severely wounded.”

Although a late arrival on the scene, the Gatling survived the war and prospered, due to the appearance of the self-contained metallic cartridge for which the gun was chambered in 1865. Synchronization of the Gatling’s barrels with the cartridge chambers was a tricky business, and the necessarily loose tolerances apparently led to some gas loss at the gun’s breech. As in the case of repeating rifles, cartridges containing primer, powder and projectile inside copper or brass cases created an instant breech gas seal on firing and assured smooth feeding through the action of a repeating rifle or machine gun.

Verifiable deployment of machine guns in the field during the Civil War was primarily limited to Union forces. Captain R.S. Williams invented a rapid-fire repeater for use in the Confederate army, but although it was an ingenious design and fairly successful, the Williams gun was not a true machine gun. It was a manually operated, single-shot, breechloading, small-bore cannon served by a three-man crew. The loader controlled the rate of fire by inserting a paper cartridge in the breech and placing a percussion cap on a nipple when a lever was pulled back. Pushing the lever forward closed the breech and fired the gun.

Other Confederate rapid-fire designs like Josiah Gorgas’ revolving turret cannon and the Vandenburg volley gun were limited to prototype models with no recorded use in combat. One source asserts that Confederates used a large-bore version of the Requa at the siege of Charleston, however, and a list of captured ordnance following the January 15, 1865, capture of Fort Fisher has an intriguing reference to one “volley gun” described as “disabled,” which was either a captured Requa or Rebel version of that arm.

The tactical use of machine guns was never committed to the doctrine of either army, but, as with repeating rifles, officers developed local ad hoc methods of employment, most notably with the Requa gun, based on experience.

For the most part, although Requa and Coffee Mill guns were issued to infantry units, as were later machine guns, they were employed as artillery pieces, usually in roles better served by actual artillery. In the end, however, imperfect ammunition combined with a lack of tactical ingenuity assured that the machine gun would fulfill no more than a novelty role in the Civil War.


Joseph G. Bilby is a member of the North-South Skirmish Association, an organization dedicated to the study and use of Civil War firearms. His most recent book is A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifles.


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