Conceived as a peacemaker, the inventor’s weapon ushered in an era of mechanized killing.
Rumors raged. In excited whispers, in idle conversations that filled the nervous hours between battles, soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War gossiped about the sketchy reports of a fantastic new weapon. Unlike such familiar firearms as the rifled single-shot muskets with which thousands of unlucky soldiers were equipped in the early 1860s, this weapon reportedly was more like a machine: a machine that doled out bullets, crisply and efficiently. Even the name bestowed on these mysterious entities sounded strange and exhilaratingly new: machine guns.
Then, on March 29, 1862, during a confrontation between Union and Confederate forces along the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry, men in the field finally got a look at one of these peculiar devices. Col. John W. Geary’s Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment deployed 10 multiple-firing weapons known as Ager coffee-mill guns.
“Now, all things ready, the diabolical grist of bullets in the hopper, the gunner…turns the crank with his right hand, and the play begins,” wrote a witness to the Ager gun in action. “It was tick, tick, tick, sixty to the minute, as fast as you could think….”
The Ager was an odd-looking contraption featuring a square hopper on top, into which steel tubes, preloaded with ammunition, were fed. A full turn of the hand crank sent the bullets flying out of the long barrel in quick succession. President Abraham Lincoln, an enthusiastic supporter of newfangled weaponry, was reportedly the man who had nicknamed this gun the “coffee-mill” because of the hopper’s shape.
That day in 1862 was the first recorded use of a machine gun in combat—and despite the excitement of the initial witnesses, it was a spectacular dud.
While the principle was sound, the gun’s design and construction were decidedly inferior. It constantly overheated. If it didn’t overheat, it jammed. Most soldiers detested the clumsy devices mounted on artillery carriages and complained about them repeatedly to their commander. A frustrated Geary sent all 10 coffee-mill guns straight back to Washington, describing them as “inefficient, and unsafe to operate.”
But inventors are not an easily discouraged lot. Some of the best minds in human history had dreamed of concocting a weapon in which the output of an individual gun could be multiplied many times over. Even Leonardo da Vinci had thought to create one, although his version, like so many others, never progressed beyond the design stage. There were daunting obstacles to the development of such a weapon, not the least of which was how to profitably manufacture on a large scale a product requiring such intricate, precisely fitting parts.
Eight months after Geary packed up his coffee-mill guns and stamped “Return to Sender” on the box, another inventor stepped up. On November 4, 1862, U.S. Patent No. 36,836 was granted to an Indianapolis businessman, Richard Jordan Gatling, for an invention he called a “Revolving Battery-Gun.”
And a world in which the capacity for human destructiveness increased exponentially was born. Indeed, Gatling’s ingenuity helped deliver firepower on a towering scale to the world’s battlefields, altering the destiny of dozens of nations and the course of history itself throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and on into the 21st.
As unlikely as it sounds, Gatling regarded his invention as a means of shortening wars, not making them more horrific. “In 1861, during opening events of the war,” he wrote to a friend in 1877, describing how he had come to create the Gatling gun, “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.”
He had a point. Simple arithmetic decreed that weapons that required fewer soldiers to operate them would put fewer lives at risk.
And there was another bit of compelling logic Gatling brought up, adding it to the sales brochures he printed shortly after obtaining his patent: A weapon of such unprecedented supremacy was a surefire game-changer in wartime. One glimpse of it and thunderstruck opponents would give up and go home.
“It is confidently believed,” Gatling wrote in an 1863 sales manifesto, “that no body of troops could be made to withstand the fire of such a death-dealing weapon, for the reason that men will not fight on such terms of inequality, or when there is no chance of victory.” The scientists who developed the atom bomb in the 1940s followed the same line of reasoning about human psychology: Show the other side that all hope is lost, and they will quickly surrender. Because the Gatling gun was not employed until the close of the Civil War, and then only sporadically and half-heartedly, we will never know if its use would have brought about an earlier end to that conflict—as the deployment of the atom bomb unquestionably did for World War II.
While the Gatling gun utilized many of the elements found in other multiple-firing weapons of the day, including the coffee-mill gun, Gatling—who opposed slavery and thus offered his gun only to the Union side—solved a variety of technical and design problems that had bedeviled other guns.
Born on a plantation just outside Murfreesboro, North Carolina, Gatling was a self-taught mechanical engineer who had enjoyed great success in the 1840s with his patented design for a seed planter that used a gravity-fed hopper and a hand crank to distribute seed evenly, in neat rows. This was a decided improvement on the broadcasting method of planting that many American farmers still used, to their detriment, through the mid-1800s.
Before patenting the first Gatling gun in 1862, Gatling had already obtained patents for a variety of agricultural devices, including a hemp brake, a rotary plow, and a lath making machine. He had traveled on steamboats to cities up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, selling the rights to make his inventions to local manufacturers.
Gatling was among the many brash, energetic, ever-optimistic Americans who took advantage of the nation’s patent system—unique in the history of the world, because it guaranteed ordinary citizens the right to profit financially from their inventions. He would ultimately obtain 43 patents in his lifetime for devices such as a cotton cultivator, a dry-cleaning machine, and an improved bicycle, and his seed plow was so renowned that it was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Crystal Palace as an example of American enterprise and know-how.
But it was a gun, not a plow, that was destined to make Gatling wealthy and famous. Using the same basic idea that he had employed in his planter—and that echoed the mechanism of the Ager gun, a debt he never publicly acknowledged—Gatling came up with a weapon in which a revolving battery fired multiple times in rapid succession. His gun simply worked better than had the Ager gun, a superiority that arose from Gat ling’s practical problem-solving abilities and technical finesse. He tapered the bore, for instance, creating a larger space at the breech end for loading the bullets. This ensured a more precise alignment between the steel chambers and the striking mechanism. He also honed a reciprocal motion at the breech end that greatly improved the way bullets entered and exited the system.
The first Gatling gun was not a truly automatic weapon, relying as it did on the turning of a hand crank, but it was the first machine gun that actually worked, safely and reliably. And it appeared at a pivotal moment in armaments history: Metal bullets of uniform size and shape were replacing paper cartridges; the superiority of rifled bores to smooth bores, and breechloaders to muzzleloaders, was now beyond dispute; metallurgical innovations such as the Bessemer method—refining steel by injecting air into molten ore, a technique invented by British steelmaker Henry Bessemer in the late 1850s—were revolutionizing the casting of artillery.
Gunmakers had long understood the chemistry and physics of their field, but knowing those facts and having the capacity to put the knowledge to practical use were two distinctly different challenges. For gunmaking to be profitable, gunmakers had to be able to produce, quickly and continuously, arms of uniform quality. It was the development of new manufacturing techniques—such as machine tooling and the standardization and interchangeability of parts—that meant inventors could get their weapons made and sold.
In this period, as historian William H. McNeill relates in his classic book The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000, manufacturing methods that had remained static for almost two centuries were transformed. What McNeill calls “the industrialization of war” was underway. Artisans who had painstakingly created guns one at a time were replaced by sleek new machines in bustling factories.
And poised to take advantage of this technological whirlwind was an inventor named Gatling, whose brainchild, ironically, exemplified in deadly practice on the battlefield the same idea of efficiency of scale that those new manufacturing techniques displayed on the factory floor.
The first incarnation of the Gatling gun, unveiled by its inventor in a public demonstration on the streets of Indianapolis in the spring of 1862, was loaded with paper cartridges. Even with the homemade, irregularly shaped ammunition, the fledgling weapon achieved a top firing rate of 200 rounds per minute, with remarkable accuracy. All subsequent models were designed to take advantage of the latest innovation: metal cartridges packing powder, bullet, and percussion cap into a single round. Once equipped with ammunition of uniform size and shape, Gatling guns achieved even more impressive rates of fire and precision of aim.
After the fiasco with the coffee-mill gun, however, Union commanders were reluctant to purchase yet another untried machine gun. Even though Gatling guns performed very well in independent tests by ordnance experts, Gatling got nowhere. “I assure you,” a somewhat desperate-sounding Gatling wrote to Lincoln in a letter dated February 18, 1864, “my invention is no ‘coffee-mill gun’—but is an entirely different arm, and is entirely free from the accidents and objections raised against that arm.”
Gatling did his best—and his best was very good indeed, because the historical record indicates he was a tireless and inspired salesman—but he was unable to persuade Union ordnance officers to adopt his invention in large multiples.
Besides the poor battlefield performance of the Ager gun, there was another reason machine guns were held in low esteem: By the time Gatling had created, tested, and offered his new product for sale, the war had taken a desperate turn. There was no appetite for trying new guns, no zeal for fooling around with exciting new armament technologies. The war had already lasted far longer than even the most pessimistic prognosticators had warned, and its toll included a grimly astonishing casualty rate.
“The bottom is out of the tub,” a somber and stricken Lincoln had written the same year that Gatling came to Washington to hustle up customers for his gun. This was a president who loved test-firing guns, who journeyed almost daily to the Washington Navy Yard with his son to try out new weapons. But now his mind was on other matters.
A few Gatling guns were sold and used during the Civil War, primarily in the siege at Petersburg that marked the war’s drawn-out denouement, and in some scattered skirmishes along rivers. But the gun was never a real player. It was only in the years after the nation’s defining conflict that the Gatling gun took hold, making its indelible mark on the United States—and the rest of the world.
In 1870, Gatling sold the rights to make his gun to the Colt Patent Firearms Company in Hartford, Connecticut. He continued to be the most effective representative of his invention, however, and moved his family from Indianapolis to Hartford to oversee production and sales. The Colt Armory was a good fit; although Samuel Colt had died in 1862, his factory continued to perfect the precise machine tooling that gave American-made weapons their impeccable reputation.
Throughout the last half of the 19th century, Gatling sold his guns to such countries as Argentina, Denmark, China, Egypt, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, and Russia. In fact Russia was the first European power to officially adopt the Gatling gun when it placed a large order in 1867, after Gatling spent several weeks there on a sales trip.
Kings and princes, prime ministers and generals eagerly snapped up Gatling guns. The guns performed superbly in tests—often supervised on the scene by Gatling himself—and quickly became the gold standard of multiple-firing weaponry. Military historians record that they were used in virtually every state-sponsored conflict, major and minor, in the second half of the 19th century, from North America to South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
In 1898, Gatling guns were pivotal in the Spanish-American War, where they caught the eye—and the imagination— of a young Theodore Roosevelt. The percussive punch of a Gatling gun in operation against the Spanish foe was, Roosevelt later wrote, “the only sound which I ever heard any men cheer in battle.”
Gatling guns worked almost too well, in fact. Deployed by British forces against tribes in Africa, Gatling guns inadvertently became symbols of racism and oppression in the subduing of indigenous populations such as the Ashantis in western Africa in 1873.
“If by any lucky chance Sir Garnet Wolseley manages to catch a good mob of savages in the open…he cannot do better than treat them to a little Gatling music,” wrote a distastefully smug British war correspondent who witnessed that campaign. Gatling guns were also routinely used by the U.S. Cavalry against Native Americans, most notably in the fight against the Cheyenne and other tribes in the Red River War that began in 1874 and in the long chase that forced Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce into Canada in 1877.
In 1876, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer famously turned down the Gatling guns that were offered to him as he prepared to fight the Sioux, leading some armchair commanders to speculate later that the massacre might have been avoided had he brought along the weapons. In truth, though, the rugged terrain at the Little Bighorn was almost surely too rough for effective deployment of the heavy guns.
The Gatling gun was by no means the only multiple-firing weapon in use at the time. Indeed, when Gatling wasn’t busy selling his gun, he was busy sniping at rivals such as the Hotchkiss and the Gardner guns. By the closing decades of the 19th century, Hiram Maxim and John Moses Browning had developed truly automatic and semiautomatic weapons, the kinds of armaments that would make World War I the ghastly and prolonged defensive stalemate that it was. Multiple-firing guns gradually became infantry as well as artillery weapons.
As the world grew increasingly bellicose, competition grew ever more keen in the world of armaments sales. Gatling had to work harder and harder to keep his gun relevant. He continued to tinker with his invention, taking out new patents to deal with problems reported by customers, and adding an electric trigger and other improvements.
In 1903, the year he died, the 85-yearold Gatling was searching for backers for another new business, one that would make steam-driven motor plows. Yet his original patents for the Gatling gun were not just quaint period pieces; when General Electric began work in the late 1950s on what would turn out to be the minigun, its engineers dug up and drew upon Gatling’s first patents, from almost a full century earlier.
To say that Gatling changed warfare with his gun is not to claim that his was the only early machine gun that mattered. The Gatling gun, however, occupies a unique historical niche. The name of his invention is still used today as a vividly descriptive phrase, a metaphor that suggests a rapid-firing burst of just about anything.
Gangsters in the 1920s often referred to their firearms as “gats.” As the United States rose to become a world superpower, the Gatling gun—an unloaded but nonetheless impressive version of which became a popular part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show traveling throughout Europe in the 1880s and 1890s—was an important symbol of American military might and technological acumen.
And Richard Gatling, the man who created it and marketed it with earnest zeal, remains a key, if unsung, figure in American history. Toward the end of his life, Gatling sometimes expressed regret at having invented his famous gun; he had seen the ferocity it unleashed, and it had not deterred war as he had hoped. Yet his design greatly aided the subsequent development of weapons that would help defeat dreaded enemies in the 20th and 21st centuries. With his optimism and his technical genius, with his driving entrepreneurial spirit, Gatling remains the splendid embodiment of what novelist William Dean Howells once called “that American poetry of vivid purpose.”
Originally published in the Spring 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.