1862 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

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On November 4 Richard Jordan Gatling received Patent Number 36,836 for a rapid-fire gun. Catling’s previous inventions were mostly agricultural ones, including a rice-sowing machine, a wheat drill, and a steam plow, but the advent of the Civil War turned his thoughts to ordnance. Adopting principies used in earlier rapid-fire guns, Gatling created the first weapon that took advantage of modern machine tooling to guarantee reliable fire.

Catling’s purpose in devising the deadly weapon was avowedly benign. Stunned by the number of soldiers who died not from wounds but from illness, he wrote, “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine—a gun—that would by its rapidity of fire enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred it would to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished.”

By 1865 Catling had perfected his invention, enabling the gun to fire two hundred shots a minute. “It bears the same relation to other firearms that McCormack’s [ sic ] Reaper does to the sickle, or the sewing machine to the common needle,” Catling wrote that year. Although he was aware of the revolutionary nature of his invention, most military men were not. The U.S. Army adopted the Catling gun in 1866, but it was for the most part ignored. In 1872 the original Catling was superseded by the Hotchkiss gun, and by 1883 the Maxim gun had rendered it obsolete.