Doctor Gatling And His Gun

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The Maxim recoil principle was used by all the nations engaged in the First World War. Mechanical technology in weapons design was then so far ahead of military thinking that in the early part of the war literally millions of men were slaughtered in senseless and hopeless frontal attacks against strongly held machine-gun positions. Then came several years of stalemate while the armies dug in. During this time new weapons were developed to attack troops protected by trenches and dugouts. Poison gas, tanks, and airplane bombs came into being while modern versions of old weapons like mortars and hand grenades were used to take machine-gun emplacements.

After more than half a century during which recoil and gas-operated machine guns dominated the military scene, a new and even more fearful weapon named the Vulcan was demonstrated at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in August, 1956. Its rate of fire is so rapid that it does not have the drumming effect of an ordinary machine gun, but, as one observer described it, sounds like the violent ripping of cloth. With the Vulcan, machine-gun development has completed a full circle, for the new gun is obviously patterned on Gatling’s principle.

Both weapons have a rotating cluster of barrels and are externally powered. Long experience has shown that the multi-barreled system is easier to keep cool and that external power provides constant firing even if one barrel jams. Appropriately, the new Vulcan was first demonstrated alongside a Gatling gun. Now, more than sixty years after Gatling failed to convince the Army that his electric motor-driven gun was basically better than any recoil or gas-operated machine gun, the principles of the weapon he invented at the beginning of the Civil War are being used in our latest type of rapid-fire aircraft armament.