A hand-driven machine gun, the Gatling gun was the first firearm to solve the problems of loading, reliability, and the firing of sustained bursts. It was invented by Richard J. Gatling during the American Civil War, and later used in the Spanish-American War, but was supplanted by advanced weaponry soon after. Years later, the technology behind the gun was re-introduced by the U.S. military, and new versions of the gun are still in use today.
The Gatling gun is a machine gun that consists of multiple barrels revolving around a central axis and is capable of being fired at a rapid rate. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler of the Union army first used the gun at the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864-1865.
The gun is named for its inventor, Richard Jordan Gatling, a physician. Gatling neatly divided his sympathies during the Civil War. While trying to sell machine guns to the Union, he was an active member of the Order of American Knights, a secret group of Confederate sympathizers and saboteurs.
The conservatism of the Union army chief of ordinance and the unreliability of early models of the gun frustrated efforts to sell it to the U.S. Army. But Gatling soon improved on the original six-barrel, .58 caliber version of the gun, which fired 350 rounds a minute, by designing a ten-barrel, .30 caliber model, which fired 400 rounds a minute. The U.S. Army adopted the Gatling gun in 1866, and it remained standard until it was replaced in the early twentieth century by the Maxim single-barrel machine gun.
The Gatling gun played an important role after the Civil War, giving small numbers of U.S. troops enormous advantages in firepower over the western Indians. In newly colonized portions of Africa and Asia, the Gatling gun provided the Europeans’ margin of victory over local forces.
A modern, helicopter-mounted version of the Gatling gun, the Vulcan minigun, was widely used by the U.S. Army in the Indochina war. The minigun, popularly known as ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ for the flames and smoke emitted from its muzzle, fires at the staggering rate of 6,000 rounds per minute, enough to decimate an entire village in one burst. The minigun continues to be used as a counterinsurgency weapon in Central America. A larger version, the 20mm Vulcan is used for antiaircraft defense.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.