The Gatling: Why This Might Be the Most Dangerous 'Gun' Ever Made

The Gatling: Why This Might Be the Most Dangerous 'Gun' Ever Made

She terrified millions in her day. 

Richard Gatling was born in Hertford County, NC, on December 12, 1818. His father was a prosperous farmer and inventor, and the son was destined to inherit the “invention bug.”

After three of his sisters died at a young age from disease, Richard Gatling decided to study medicine, and graduated from the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati in 1850. He moved to Indianapolis the same year, and in 1854 married the daughter of a prominent local physician. There is no evidence that Richard Gatling ever practiced medicine after leaving medical school, but he was always referred to as “doctor.”

Gatling was a born inventor. Between 1857 and 1860 he patented a steam plow, a rotary plow, a seed planter, a lath-making machine, a hemp rake, and a rubber washer for tightening gears. One day in 1861, with the Civil War only a few months old, Dr. Gatling’s inventive fervor suffered a shock that would turn his mind from machines of peace to machines of war. From his Indianapolis office window, Gatling watched in horror as wounded and maimed soldiers were unloaded from a train—casualties from the southern killing fields.

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The doctor was aware that the conflict was being waged in Napoleonic fashion. Men faced each other in solid ranks—aimed, fired, reloaded—and, on command, charged headlong into the blazing guns of the enemy. For several nights Richard Gatling could not sleep. A single idea occupied his thoughts. What if a few soldiers could duplicate the firepower of a hundred men? Troops would no longer be able to stand still and shoot at each other. And the running charge would be impossible, because the attacking force would be mowed down like tall grass.

Gatling reasoned that if he were able to invent a machine that could plant seeds swiftly, accurately, and in precise rows, he should be able to devise a mechanical gun that would spray bullets like water from a garden hose.

Invention of the Gatling Gun

Within a few weeks, the doctor had completed the drawings for his innovative weapon, the “Gatling gun,” and took the sketches to a machinist to manufacture.

The first Gatling gun consisted of a cluster of six rifle barrels, without stocks, arranged around a center rod. Each barrel had its own bolt, and the entire cluster could be made to revolve by turning a crank. The bolts were covered by a brass case at the breech. Cartridges were fed into a hopper, and as the cluster revolved, each barrel was fired at its lowest point, and then reloaded when the revolution was completed.

The gun was mounted upon a wheeled carriage. Two men were required to operate the weapon—one to sight the target and turn the crank, the other to load the ammunition.

A working model was completed within six months, and a public demonstration was held across Graveyard Pond in Indianapolis. The abrupt, rapid noise of gunfire could be heard for five miles and, at 200 rounds per minute, the bullets cut a 10-inch tree in half in less than 30 seconds.

Dr. Gatling patented his gun on November 4, 1862, but he had a difficult time selling it to the Army. General James Wolfe Ripley, chief of ordnance, was not impressed with the weapon and remarked: “You can kill a man just as dead with a cap-n’-ball smooth-bore.”

Gatling was unperturbed, however, and took his diagrams to a manufacturing company in Cincinnati. Twelve of the Gatling guns were built, and a few of them were sold to General Benjamin Butler for $1,000 each. Butler later used the Gatlings to hold a bridgehead against Confederate cavalry at the James River.

In early trials of the Gatling gun, it was regarded by the military as a supplement to artillery. The tests that were conducted compared the range and accuracy of the machine gun with the range and accuracy of grapeshot fired by artillery pieces.

Richard Gatling continued to modify and improve the weapon, and in 1865 patented a model that was capable of firing 350 rounds per minute. A demonstration was held at Fortress Monroe. This time the ordnance department was impressed and ordered a hundred guns. The Gatling gun was officially adopted by the U.S. Army on August 24, 1866. It was first manufactured by Cooper Arms in Philadelphia, and later by the Colt Arms Company of Hartford, Conn.

Europe and Abroad

Dr. Gatling traveled throughout Europe selling his weapon, and new models were continually being designed. A short-barrel variety was purchased by the British and mounted on camels. This so-called “camel gun” was also used by the U.S. Army and Navy.