In 1862, Richard Jordan Gatling invented a multi-barreled, rotating gun operated by a hand crank that could fire up to 200 rounds a minute. Used only a few times during the Civil War, the Gatling gun would later become the first widely successful machine gun.
Who Was Richard Jordan Gatling?
Born in North Carolina in 1818, Gatling helped his father, a wealthy planter, develop better farming implements, tools and machinery for sowing and harvesting cotton. In 1844, soon after obtaining his first patent, for a new type of seed planter, Gatling moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he continued to develop farming implements and machinery for growing rice and wheat. In addition to creating, marketing and selling his inventions, Gatling also studied medicine, but never practiced as a physician.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Gatling was living in Indianapolis, Indiana. Though he had been born in the South, he was a staunch supporter of the Union. After seeing not only the gruesome wounds but the widespread disease that killed so many Union soldiers during the conflict, Gatling began thinking about creating a more efficient and effective weapon than the bayonets and muskets typically used in battle at the time.
In a letter to a friend written in 1877, Gatling explained his motivation for inventing the rapid-fire weapon that would bear his name: “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine—a gun—which could by 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.”
How Did the Gatling Gun Work?
Gatling received the first patent for the new firearm on November 4, 1862. The Gatling gun had six metal barrels arranged in a circle and mounted on a wheeled cart. As the gun’s operator turned the crank, a bullet entered a barrel from a magazine and then rotated to the firing position. After each bullet was fired, that barrel continued to move and was reloaded with another bullet.
Gatling continued to make improvements to the gun’s design, but even the earliest version was able to fire some 200 rounds per minute. While the first Gatling gun used paper cartridges loaded with gunpowder and .58 caliber bullets, the introduction of brass cartridges made it possible for later versions to fire up to 400 rounds per minute.
Use of the Gatling Gun in the Civil War and After
Though efforts to invent a weapon that could fire multiple times in quick succession went back centuries by the time Gatling tried it, the Gatling gun represented a giant leap forward in the development of the rapid-fire machine gun. Yet despite its success in early trials, the U.S. Army Ordnance Department refused to adopt the relatively untested new weapon during the Civil War. Benjamin F. Butler became the only Union general to purchase Gatling guns during the conflict, and at least one of the dozen guns Butler bought saw action during the brutal siege of Petersburg, Virginia in the spring of 1865.
The Army officially adopted the Gatling gun in 1866, and its visibility grew steadily from there.
By the end of the 19th century, the weapon had become a terrifying symbol of power and dominance. U.S. troops used Gatling guns in their repeated campaigns against Native Americans, while British forces employed them in their wars against the Zulu in Africa (1879). From the 1870s-90s, a period of widespread labor unrest in the United States, law enforcement officers and state militias around the United States used Gatling guns in their violent clashes with striking workers.
The Enduring Legacy of the Gatling Gun
Richard Gatling died in 1903 at the age of 85. He had obtained a total of 43 patents throughout his life, for devices ranging from a steam-driven tractor to an improved flush toilet. Meanwhile, his most famous invention faced increasing competition from newer repeating firearms based on the recoil mechanism rather than revolving barrels. By the time World War I broke out, the Gatling gun had been pushed aside in favor of the first completely automatic machine gun, invented by Maine-born Hiram Stevens Maxim in England in the 1880s.
While Gatling’s original motivation may have been to decrease the violence and bloodshed of war, the smaller yet highly effective automatic weapons inspired by his innovation undoubtedly made warfare more devastating than ever before. The Gatling gun’s reputation resurged after World War II, when it was used as the model for the Vulcan minigun, commonly mounted aboard U.S. fighter helicopters during the Vietnam War.
Julia Keller. Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It. (Viking, 2008)
Kelsey D. Atherton. “Union Soldiers Fired This Primitive Machine Gun During the Civil War.” Popular Science, August 22, 2013.
Philip Van Doren Stern. “Doctor Gatling and His Gun.” American Heritage, October 1957.