The Gatling Gun
The Gatling gun saw only limited use in the Civil War, (Ben Butler used two around Petersburg and eight on gunboats; Porter acquired one; and Hancock ordered twelve for his I (Veteran) Corps), however, the conflict did test this weapon, perhaps the first successful true machine gun used in warfare. Invented by Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling, the Civil War model served as the precursor of more successful models.
The Gatling gun was a hand-crank-operated weapon with 6 barrels revolving around a central shaft. The cartridges were fed to the gun by gravity through a hopper mounted on the top of the gun. 6 cam-operated bolts alternately wedged, fired, and dropped the bullets, which were contained in steel chambers. Gatling used the 6 barrels to partially cool the gun during firing. Since the gun was capable of firing 600 rounds a minute, each barrel fired 100 rounds per minute.
The gun had a number of problems, however. The bores were tapered, and often the barrels and chambers did not exactly align, affecting accuracy and velocity. The chamber system itself, in which a paper cartridge was contained inside a capped steel chamber, was both expensive and fragile. While the gun showed much promise and fired the standard .58-caliber ammunition, it had so many drawbacks and was so radical in both design and purpose that Gatling was unable to interest the U.S. government. The army purchased none of his guns, but Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, after a field test, purchased 12 for $1,000 each and two were used on the Petersburg front in 1864 and apparently were considered successful.
In Jan. 1865 Gatling's improved Model 1865 gun was tested by the Ordnance Department. Among other things, this weapon used rimfire copper-cased cartridges instead of the steel-chambered paper variety. Though this model did not see service, it was adopted officially in 1866. Having at last received government approval, Gatling began to sell his guns throughout the world; they achieved lasting fame in the post-war years.
The revolving bundle of barrels to which Dr. Gatling attached a hopper feed for steel chargers solved many of the problems then plaguing machine gun designers. First, the hopper permitted the sustained fire desired. With sustained fire, as in the Ager or Williams gun, came hazards; expansion from over heating and either jamming, or erosion of the bore. Gatling solved this by adding barrels. The time delay between the firing of succeeding shots in any one barrel, as it revolved about to return to its place before the firing mechanism, was enough to permit some cooling. Originally Gatling conceived of an enclosed barrel group with a cylinder about the barrels to hold cooling materials. This was found to be not necessary and the Gatling guns from first until the brass-jacket Ml883 were exposed barrel models.
It can be answered with some degree of certainty why Gatling invented his gun. That is, in the lives of many other inventors, statements of purpose are often lacking. Some may have invented such-and-such for patriotic motives, to get rich quick, or some other mundane, prosaic reason. Dr. Gatling, independently wealthy at the start of the war, has chosen to set forth his own reasons quite clearly.
In 1877, Gatling lived in Hartford, Connecticut next door to Mrs. Colt, widow of the late Samuel Colt at whose factory the Gatling Gun Company now contracted the manufacture of their guns. Mrs. Colts little niece, Elizabeth Jarvis, was a frequent visitor to the Gatling's hospitable residence, and Gatling explained to her his beliefs at the time he developed the guns:
Hartford, June 15th, 1877
My Dear Friend.
It may be interesting to you to know how I came to invent the gun which bears my name; I will tell you: In 1861, during the opening events of the war, (residing at that time in Indianapolis, md.,) 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. I thought over the subject and finally this idea took practical form in the invention of the Gatling Gun.
By the time of Gatling's elderly years, the story had grown slightly in nobility; as his granddaughter, Mrs. Albert Newcombe, remembers it. "He was a most peace-loving soul, and I remember that his reason for inventing that then-lethal gun, was to make war so horrible that it would end wars."
But Gatling's own written words seems to be less glamourous, for in 1864 he touched somewhat on his motives in a letter to President Lincoln. "The arm in question is an invention of no ordinary character," he wrote from Indianapolis to the President on February 18, 1864. "It is regarded by all who have seen it operate, as the most effective implement of warfare invented during the war, and it is just the thing needed to aid in crushing the present rebellion." (Emphasis supplied by Dr. Gatling). Taking a swipe at the Ager gun in a postscript, Gatling concluded his appeal to Lincoln to have the gun adopted by the Army with: "I have seen an inferior arm known as the 'coffee mill gun,' which I am informed has not given satisfaction in practical tests on the battlefield. I assure you my invention is no 'coffee mill gun',--but is entirely a different arm, and is entirely free from the accidents and objections raised against that arm."
There is in this a hint of the efficiency, the veritable "automation" which Gatling, a mechanical scientist first and always, sought to bring to the battlefront. His first gun was patented November 4, 1862, but was in existence, working well on July 14, 1862. That day, T.A. Morris, A. Ballweg, and D.G. Rose certified t the working of the gun which they had tested at direction of Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana. "The discharge can be made with all desirable accuracy as rapidly as 150 times a minute, and may be continued for hours without danger, as we think, from over heating."
Source of Information: "Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War", Boatner's "Civil War Dictionary", and Edwards's "Civil War Guns".
This Page last updated 04/06/05
RETURN TO CIVIL WAR WEAPONS PAGE