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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
This early proponent of push-button warfare went to work and by November 4, 1862, was granted his first patent for a machine gun with six revolving barrels turned by a crank. Since his first model, like the coffee-mill gun, used loaded steel containers, it was an improvement over that pioneer weapon only in that its multi-barrel principle kept the Gatling from overheating or from going out of commission if one barrel jammed. When Gatling redesigned his gun to take the newly developed metallic cartridge his weapon became the highly efficient, death-dealing machine that eventually was to make its inventor rich and famous. He finally reached popular immortality in gangsters’ speech in which any repeating hand weapon became, by the linguistic process known as apocope, a “gat.”
But the Gatling gun was so slow to win acceptance by the Army Ordnance Department that it never became important in the Civil War. The few Gatlings used saw service only because individual commanders procured them—sometimes with private funds.
Ben Butler was one of these commanders. He got a dozen Gatlings for his troops, and at least one of them is said to have been in action at Petersburg in the spring of 1865. (A very early Gatling gun bearing Serial No. 2. now in the West Point Museum, is probably one of the guns Butler bought.) The Navy was generally more progressive in its attitude toward new weapons than the Army, and Admiral David Dixon Porter ordered a Gatling sent to Cairo, Illinois. The Gatling gun’s usefulness in protecting boats and bridges was quickly appreciated, and records show that they were mounted on various kinds of watercraft and at bridgeheads. Three of them were brought to New York to guard the New York Times building on Park Row during the bloody Draft Riots of July, 1863.
On February 18, 1864. Gatling wrote to Lincoln to explain the virtues of his gun and to ask for his assistance in getting it put to wider use. But by this time the harassed President had lost interest in machine guns. And in a few weeks he was to hand over the responsibility of deciding about the Union Army’s strategy and equipment to Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln therefore ignored Gatling’s letter, and the gun lost its chance of turning the tide of battle in the Civil War.
But perhaps the real reason why the Gatling gun did not have more influence on Civil War history is that its southern-horn inventor was found to be a member of the secret Copperhead organizations that were threatening to take over the border and north-central states for the Confederacy. It was revealed, too, that he was offering his weapon for sale to anyone who would buy it—and this meant not only foreign governments but the Confederacy as well. One can hardly blame Gatling, who had been constantly rebuffed by the Army Ordnance Department, but he became very unpopular with American military men until the war was over. Then, on August 24, 1866. the Gatling gun was officially adopted by the United States Army, which ordered 100 of them. Gatling had these built by the Colt Patent Fire Arms Company, which manufactured all his guns from then on.
Once the official seal of American governmental approval was placed on his weapon, Gatling was in a good position to sell it to foreign countries. He did fairly well with the British, the Austrians, with various South American governments, and with the Russians (who called the gun the Gorloff after the general who adopted it), but he could not interest the French, who were busy inventing their own mitrailleuse.
This French volley gun with 25 stationary barrels using paper cartridges was based on an entirely different principle from Gatling’s revolving gun, and it was developed under such great secrecy that when it was sent into battle during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the soldiers who were supposed to use it had never been taught how to operate it. As a result the German armies rolled over France, and rapid-firing weapons were looked at skeptically by the military experts of the world for a generation to come. Among those who saw the failure of the French mitrailleuse in battle was General Philip H. Sheridan.
In 1876, when one of Sheridan’s close personal friends and top cavalry commanders, General George A. Custer, led more than 250 doomed men of the famous 7th Cavalry into the Montana hill country to search for hostile Sioux Indians, he left behind a battery of Gatlings. If he had taken the then greatly improved machine guns with him the outcome of the much-discussed battle at the Little Big Horn would surely have been very different. But Custer thought that the wheeled gun carriages drawn by the condemned horses assigned to them would slow him down in the rough country through which he had to travel. He also is said to have believed that the use of so devastating a weapon would cause him to lose face with the Indians.
Two years later, however, three Gatling guns were used in a battle against the Shoshones and Bannocks, who were in a seemingly impregnable position on top of a bluff near the Umatilla Agency. The Indians were quickly driven off the heights by the Gatlings’ hail of bullets that swept along the crest and scattered the terrified warriors by their drumming rattle.