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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
During the last part of the nineteenth century the Gatling’s devastating firepower was tested many times against poorly armed natives in various parts of the world. During the Russo-Turkish War, a Captain Litvinoff, who operated one of his regiment’s two guns, wrote what is perhaps the first account by an actual participant of the Gatling’s deadly might. When a horde of howling Wyonoods made a surprise attack on the Russian camp in the middle of the night, the Captain described what happened:
“Though it was dark we perceived in front of us the galloping masses of the enemy with uplifted, glittering swords. When they approached us within about twenty paces I shouted the command 'Fire!’ This was followed by a salvo of all men forming the cover and a simultaneous rattle of the two battery guns. In this roar the cries of the enemy at once became weak and then ceased altogether. … I ventured to get a look at the surrounding ground, availing myself of the first light of dawn. … At every step lay prostrated the dead bodies of the Wyonoods.”
In 1879 the British used Gatlings against the Zulus, and in one encounter a single gun mowed down 473 tribesmen in a few minutes. And in 1882, when British troops invaded Egypt after the massacre of foreigners at Alexandria, 370 men armed with a few Gatlings captured and held the city while thousands of rioters and Egyptian troops were held back for four days, overawed by “the guns that pumped lead.”
The definitive work on the subject is The Machine Gun, a four-volume work prepared for the Navy Bureau of Ordnance by Lieutenant Colonel George M. Chinn, lately of the Marine Corps. (Volumes two and three of this work are classified and not available to the public.) According to Colonel Chinn, machine guns have killed more people than any other mechanical device—including even the automobile—and the Maxim recoil movement alone has been responsible for the death of more than 8,000,000 human beings. In the First World War, he says, 92 per cent of the casualties were caused by machine guns.
According to Colonel Chinn, the Gatling Gun Company sent trained operators abroad to stage demonstrations of the weapon. And, he says: “In their enthusiasm to put on a good show, they have been known to set up their guns against the enemy of a prospective customer and repel a charge, just to show its effectiveness as an instrument of annihilation.”
It was during the Spanish-American War that Gatling guns first demonstrated their ability to win battles in which troops on both sides were equipped with modern weapons. The Spaniards had smokeless powder—something the American Army had not yet bothered to adopt because it had so much black powder on hand. As a result, Spanish marksmen could spot American soldiers each time they fired and then pick them off one by one. But even under such conditions, when their positions were revealed by clouds of smoke from the obsolete black powder, the Gatlings worked with the efficiency of riveting hammers.
Under the command of Lieutenant John H. Parker, the first soldier anywhere to appreciate the tactical power of machine guns in offensive warfare, four Gatling and two Colt machine guns were employed in the attack on Santiago, Cuba. Quick to pay tribute to the Gatlings’ newly demonstrated value in such warfare was Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, who said: “The efficiency with which the Gatlings were handled by Parker was one of the most striking features of the campaign; he showed that a first-rate officer could use machine guns, on wheels, in battle and skirmish, in attacking and defending trenches, alongside of the best troops, and to their great advantage.” After the war Parker wrote the first American machine-gun manual, which was published in 1899.
American armed forces were so neglected during the half century after 1865 that American-born inventors of military weapons could not find employment in their own country. One after another they went abroad to work for foreign governments. Yet nearly all the important machine-gun inventions were made by Americans.
In 1871 Benjamin B. Hotchkiss of Connecticut, working in France, developed a rapid-fire cannon which had revolving barrels turned by a crank like the Gatling gun. In 1884 Maine-born Hiram Stevens Maxim invented his widely used gun in England. This took advantage of the recoil of the barrel to do the loading and firing and so was the first completely automatic machine gun. Then, in the early 1890s, John Moses Browning of Utah invented an automatic weapon which made use of the discharge gases to operate the gun. Browning also spent much of his later life in Europe, for he lived and died in Belgium where his guns were manufactured.
These new automatic machine guns, many of them with single barrels cooled by a water jacket, made the manually operated Gatling seem out of date. In an effort to keep his invention alive, in 1893 Gatling developed an electric motor drive which fired his gun at the astounding rate of 3,000 rounds per minute. He also went on to build an automatic gas-operated gun, but by this time his product was meeting heavy competition throughout the world and was officially declared obsolete by the United States Army in 1911.