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Doctor Gatling And His Gun
Professing humanitarian motives, he gave gangsters a word for their artillery and the world its first practicable machine gun.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
All was not quiet along the Potomac early in 1862. The 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, under command of Colonel John W. Geary of Kansas fame, was guarding a 24-mile stretch of the river, and there were occasional skirmishes between the opposing armies. On February 7, Geary shelled Harpers Ferry, and a few weeks later marched in and recaptured the town from the Confederates.
At some time between January 2 and February 24, 1862, somewhere along the shores of the Potomac, one of the unknown Confederate soldiers who was killed in these minor skirmishes may have been the world’s first victim of machine-gun fire. Geary’s regiment had two strange-looking new weapons into which cylindrical steel containers loaded with Minié balls, powder charges, and primed with percussion caps, were fed through a hopper while the single-barreled gun was operated by a hand crank. The new weapon, whose inventor is now unknown, was officially named the Union Repeating Gun but everyone, including President Lincoln, who had urged the Army to adopt it, called it the “coffee-mill” gun because it looked like an old-fashioned coffee grinder.
Geary’s machine guns were first fired in actual battle in the Shenandoah Valley at Middleburg, Virginia, on March 29. A few weeks later an army officer, speaking in New York at Cooper Union, said: “One of these guns was brought to bear on a squadron of cavalry at 800 yards, and it cut them to pieces terribly, forcing them to fly.” But Geary was not satisfied with the new guns’ performance, finding them “inefficient and unsafe to the operators,” so he returned them to the Washington Arsenal, where they were later disposed of as old metal for eight dollars each.
Lincoln’s efforts to persuade his slow-thinking, slow-moving Army Ordnance Department to adopt more modern weapons have been described by Robert V. Bruce in Lincoln and the Tools of War. After the failure of the coffee-mill gun Lincoln stopped backing machine guns and concentrated on repeating rifles. But inventors kept working on the problem which had fascinated mechanically minded men ever since Leonardo da Vinci had made a sketch for a multi-barreled “organ gun.” In 1718 an Englishman named James Puckle was granted a patent for what, on paper, looks like a workable machine gun. But since Puckle’s patent drawing shows that his gun was supposed to fire round bullets against Christians and square ones against infidels, there is some doubt about his seriousness.
The problem kept tantalizing inventors for years, and some of them came up with ingenious—but not very practicable—solutions for it. One truly remarkable patent was granted in 1863 to James O. Whitcomb of New York for a four-barreled rapid-fire gun which was designed to be fired electrically. It was an intricate bit of mechanism which required split-second tuning that would never have stood up under battlefield conditions. The gun never got beyond the patent-drawing stage, but the inventor’s boldness of thinking put him far ahead of his time.
The Confederates, too, became interested in the machine gun. One of them, Captain D.R. Williams, of Covington, Kentucky, built a rather clumsy repeating one-pounder that was first used at the Battle of Seven Pines (or Fair Oaks) on May 31 and June 1, 1862. Several batteries of these guns saw service during the war. A few other primitive rapid-fire guns were used by the Confederates in isolated instances. One of them, a forerunner of the famous Lewis machine gun of the First World War, was invented by the father of William C. Gorgas, whose sanitary work in suppressing yellow fever made the digging of the Panama Canal possible.
The first practical machine gun, the quick-firing weapon that was to change the tactics of warfare throughout the entire world, was invented by a southerner, Dr. Richard J. Gatling, who had been born in North Carolina but who later moved to the North. His father had been an inventor before him, and Gatling kept creating new devices all his long life.
Like many other inventors of deadly weapons who believed that they could discourage the human race from fighting by making warfare ever more terrible, Gatling considered his motives humanitarian. In a letter written twelve years after the Civil War he said: “In 1861 … (residing at the time in Indianapolis, Ind.) 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.”