A Rough Rider Gatling

By Lee Arten

People who came to the 1998 outdoor expo at the Upper Peninsula State Fairgrounds in Escanaba, Michigan June 4, 5, 6 and 7th, got a chance to try computer simulated hunting and fishing, sample wild-game jerky, go to a gun show, and see record-book whitetail buck mounts. The event, put on by The Michigan Sportsmen Congress, also had two extra attractions, a civil war reenactment group, Battery D of the Michigan Light Artillery, and a Gatling that may have gone to Cuba with Theodore Roosevelt. The Gatling, a Model of 1895, in .30 Government (.30-40 Krag), was the main reason I attended.

The gun, owned by Dr. Bill Meyer, of northern Wisconsin, is 100 years old and in excellent condition. The brass work is beautiful, as is the rest of the gun. It uses a Bruce Feed, rather than drum or stick magazines. With the Bruce device, ammunition is inserted into two columns in a brass and steel feeder directly from opened ammunition boxes. For best results, two people are needed to feed the gun. The feeder pendulum is swung by hand to send rounds into the hopper. From there they go to the butterfly, are fed into the chamber and fired. Meyer said a rate of 600 rounds per minute could be maintained “... as long as you have ammo and people to feed it.”

Along with the gun, Meyer brought the caisson, period uniforms, original ammunition boxes, and several historical posters. All of the displays contained “original, archival material,” and Meyer says the gun is “...original, right down to the canvas covers.” In the field, two quarter horses or mules would have pulled the gun, and the non-commissioned officer in charge would have ridden another mount. There would have been five members of the gun crew in all. Two rode on the limber, and two on the horses that pulled the gun.

Meyer didn’t bring horses with him. On June 4, the Expo opened with a parade, which included the Gatling. During the parade the Gatling was pulled through town by two Escanaba area horses. Meyer complimented the horses, but at the fairgrounds he depended on his partner and assistant, Bruce Rene, and a couple of volunteers to wheel the gun into position for the demonstrations. I saw two of the five live-fire sessions, and there was no shortage of volunteers to move the gun. A friend helped once, and said the Gatling was easy to move around.

The demonstrations were done in the infield of the fairground racetrack with a pile of sand about fifty yards out for a backstop. The targets were water-filled milk jugs, and pieces of 2 by 12. Battery D did its demonstration first, showing how a Civil War Union artillery unit operated, making lots of smoke and noise with their cannons. When they were done Meyer discussed the history of the Gatling, including the fact that the current Vigilante anti-missile system, and other modern weapons, are basically electrically operated Gatlings. Then it was time for the shooting.

The Gatling carriage itself can carry 1,600 rounds of .30-40 ammunition in compartments. The limber can carry 9,000 rounds and 100,000 more can be packet into the caisson. During each Gatling demonstration between 1,200 and 1,400 rounds were fired, with Meyer acting as loader in all demonstrations. He said when he first acquired the gun he couldn’t wait to fire it. Now he finds it a bit of an anti-climax and is content to fill the Bruce Feed. “Shooting it is like grinding sausage,” Meyer said.

In the first demonstration, the Gatling’s elevation was locked down and the windage adjustment was loosened so the gun could be swept through a line of milk jugs. The firing began slowly, but it didn’t take long to make the milk jugs jump and explode. When the jugs had been finished off, the rest of the ammunition was fired at the plank. A large hole was quickly chopped in the left side of the board. The board wasn’t cut in two, but only because the ammunition ran out.

The second demonstration was done a little differently, since the host of a local outdoors TV show was filming it. The gun was fired, then made safe, so the host could position his camera on a tripod ahead and to the right of the gun, for a dramatic shot. He left the camera running, then stepped back while several bursts were fired. After the gun was safe again, he retrieved the camera and continued filming from behind the firing line. This time the gun was fired more quickly. The faster runs showed that the loaders really are the limiting factor in the Gatling’s rate of fire. Meyer had some trouble keeping up as Rene sighted on the targets and cranked off shots.

A case separation occurred about half way through the second demonstration. One case broke on firing and a section a bit shorter than a .45 ACP case was ejected with the intact .30-40 brass. The rest of the case stuck in the chamber and the next round fed stuck inside of it. Firing was stopped, the bolt was pulled, the chamber was cleared, the bolt was replaced, and firing resumed. It took more time than an IPSC shooter’s tap, rack bang drill, but not as much as you might expect. The broken case was dated 1931, and had been reloaded several times. The stoppage was the only one in the 2,000 plus rounds fired June 5. Meyer said tough old military cases usually work better than softer commercial ones and original boxes work better with the Bruce Feed than later reproductions.

The load Meyer and Rene developed for the Gatling uses a compressed charge of H4831 to drive a 220 grain roundnose bullet to about 2600 feet per second. Meyer said the load is too hot for Winchester 95s or Krags, but it works well in the Gatling.

Evidence that this Gatling was in Cuba with Roosevelt is strong but circumstantial. “We can tell where the gun wasn’t,” Meyer said. It is in the right caliber for the period. On page 108 of The Rough Riders, Theodore Roosevelt states that the Gatlings used in Cuba, fired “...the Krag ammunition...” Meyer’s gun also has bolts for the armor that was only fitted on guns that went to Cuba. Meyer does not have the armor, but he does have evidence that his gun followed the route of the Roosevelt guns after they were brought back from the “Splendid Little War.” The last stop on that route was the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.

At Aberdeen in the 1950s Gatlings like his were used as test beds for “new” rotary barrel weapon designs. Meyer said, “Maxim and Browning (guns) replaced Gatlings, but Gatling never lost favor in some circles—because of its reliability.” One of his posters shows Gatling ammunition from 1862-1962. It starts with the blackpowder .50-70 round and ends with the 20 and 30 millimeter rounds for the Vulcan and Vigilante anti-missile systems. “Nothing is really new,” Meyer says, “People just forgot about Gatlings for a while.”

The Model of 1895 was new to me. I’d never seen a Gatling in the brass and steel before, and found it very impressive. Although I wasn’t able to fire the gun because of liability concerns, it was interesting to see it at work. Even at 100 years old the Gatling would still be a formidable weapon—if it came to that. The main problem with it—with .30-40 cases recently discontinued by Winchester and 220 grain .30 caliber bullets sometimes difficult to find—might be getting enough ammunition to fill up its Bruce Feed.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N10 (July 2001)
and was posted online on May 2, 2014


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