Hailstorm of Death: The Gatling Gun

By J David Truby

One of the USAF’s flying gun emplacements, an ancient AC-47 armed with two or three 7.62x51mm Miniguns, circled slowly over the hills of El Salvador pouring a hailstorm of deadly steel into guerilla positions below. I watched, thinking about the spirit of Dr. Richard J. Gatling, sitting in gun maker heaven, perhaps wondering about the irony of it all.

One of the finest rapid-fire, airborne small arms systems in use today, the Vietnam-era Vulcan is directly evolved from Gatling’s own machine gun, the first practical and successful one in history, which was formally rejected by the Union War Department in 1863, 1864, and 1865, before going on to win battles, wars and international fame for the next 40 years. And, then, American innovators stepped it up a few techno-notches.

After witnessing a demonstration of a Gatling gun, journalist Wayne Fuenman wrote, “this weapon is a hailstorm of death.... Its story weaves through unauthorized use in our Civil War, awards for combat use in foreign wars, a strange silence in this nation, and finally comes to a clattering, death-rattling combat conclusion on the smoke-choked slopes of San Juan Hill in July of 1898.”

Patented and first tested in 1862, the Gatling machine gun was the brainwork of Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling. It consists of a group of rifled barrels, ranging from six to ten in number, arranged lengthwise around a central shaft.

A hand crank revolves this entire assembly, though later an electric motor was added, and appropriate gearwork. A cartridge is fed automatically and successively into each barrel by a crank mechanism, which revolves so that the bolt pushes each cartridge into the barrel, guided by a camming grove in a cam plate. By the time the barrel reaches the bottom of the cylinder, the striker is released and that cartridge is fired. Then, as the bolt continues upward on the other side of the Gatling gun it is drawn back by the cam groove, ejecting the empty casing. Thus, half of the barrels are loaded and half are unloaded at any given time in the cycle. As each barrel is fired only once per revolution, heating and fouling are kept to a minimum.

The firing speed of the early, hand-cranked production guns was varied simply by cranking speed, the faster the cranking, the more rounds per minute. These early models used a gravity feed system, which sometimes caused feeding failures. However, Gatling’s longtime associate, a professional engineer named J.G. Accles, introduced an improved magazine and feed system, which bears his name, solving that problem.

Gatling’s motivation for his gun came during a conversation with a friend in 1861, President-to-be Benjamin Harrison, then an Army general. Gatling explained that he was disturbed by the inhumanity of war and felt the need to invent an “ultimate weapon to diminish the need for drawn-out wars. Fear of all their soldiers being cut down by my killing machine would cause Generals to stop warring,” he told Harrison.

“There’s little doubt our Civil War could have been shortened had the War Department purchased my devilishly deadly weapon,” said Gatling, promoting his machine gun in England five years later.

Although the prototype was produced in Indianapolis, Gatling’s home, the initial dozen production models of the 1862 pattern were built in Philadelphia. Firing a maximum 250 rpm, the model 1862 was a powder, ball, and percussion cap affair that was immobile, subject to gas leaks, and awkward to set up. But, it was far better than anything else around, and Gatling was more than willing to make improvements as he tried unsuccessfully to sell his gun to the U.S. military.

Gatling met with official refusal until he personally demonstrated his gun to Gen. Benjamin F. Butler in Baltimore. Unable to get official funds for the guns, Butler personally paid $12,000 for the dozen Gatling guns, carriages, and 12,000 rounds of shot. These guns were used during the siege of Petersburg, VA.

A contemporary newspaper story quotes an awed artillery officer who witnessed the Gatlings in action, “a soldier turns a crank and shells fly out like a firestorm...It cut the rebel boys down.”

Despite this and Butler’s glowing reports, the Union War Department refused official purchase. Undaunted, Gatling wrote directly to President Lincoln, imploring him that “this invention is an Act of Providence for suppressing the rebellion in short order.” Gatling also wrote that his gun was “the most destructive engine of war ever invented.”

Not only was he an immodest salesman, but also this inventive genius truly did have faith in his guns. An unusual and versatile man of talent, Richard Jordan Gatling was born in North Carolina in 1818. His father was a well-to-do planter and inventor. Young Gatling was a schoolteacher for a while, and then tried being a storekeeper. Tiring of this, he worked with his father and alone as an inventor for five years, gaining patents on many agricultural items. Bored with trying to sell his ahead-of-their-time inventions to skeptical farmers, the brilliant Gatling entered medical school.

Although he graduated from Ohio Medical College as a dentist in 1849, Dr. Gatling never practiced medicine outside of his own family. His fulltime expertise was devoted to inventions, the most famous of which made him a wealthy man. And, when it came to that invention, Richard Gatling was a perfectionist.

By 1865, he had vastly improved his weapon and was granted a second patent that year. Twelve weapons were ordered for the Department of War’s testing facilities. The tests were quite satisfactory, and in August of 1866, the U.S. Army finally adopted the Gatling gun. Gatling received an order for 100 additional weapons to be produced by the Colt Patent Firearm Fire Arms Manufacturing Company in Hartford.

The inventor and his Gatling Gun Company moved to Hartford to oversee production and to coordinate further foreign sales and manufacture. This began a long association between the two companies, such that, by 1890, Colt had essentially absorbed the smaller Gatling Company. The takeover was made official in 1897. However, before that took place, though, a lot of Gatling guns came out of the Hartford plant in at least a dozen calibers to win myriad battles all over the world.

The initial hundred-gun order to be produced included fifty 1-inch and fifty .50 caliber models, each with six rifled steel barrels. The cartridges were copper-cased and primed, just like modern ammunition. The weapons weighed about 225 pounds each, while the carriage and limber together weighed about 405 pounds.

According to Ordnance Corps data, the larger weapon had a full range of two miles, while the smaller Gatling gun could fire at a one-mile range. The effective combat range was certainly much less, of course. Retractable open sights were located on the center of the breech housing with elevation controlled by a jackscrew. If the sights were not in use they could be retracted down into the case.

This was his second gun, the model 1865, and the efficient, fast, death-spraying gun that made the name Gatling famous. Fired in competition with howitzers, cannon, and other “machine” guns in various government trials, the Gatling gun came out on top every time. Early Ordnance Corp tests noted of the Gatling, “This novel engine of war will prove useful...little recoil to affect accuracy rapid-fire day or night and always be on target.”

The Report praised the simple operation, the potential for any variety of caliber choices and concluded, “Like the gun itself, all the parts work well and are durable.”

Capt. T. G. Baylor, U.S. Ordnance Corps, who tested a Gatling gun at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, in July of 1866, reported an early test of field ruggedness. He noted that after firing, the gun was not cleaned. Instead, as Capt. Baylor reported, “I had the oil rubbed off this gun, drenched it with water and exposed it for two nights and a day to rain and weather, but though it was rusty it was fired 97 times in a minute and a half, one man turning the crank.”

In another test by U.S. ordnance officers, one Gatling gun fired 63,000 rounds continually without a stoppage. With its adoption, even the usually stuffy War Department officialdom echoed the bombastic praise of the Gatling gun’s inventor. One report says of the weapon, “It has the firepower of two companies of infantry, yet takes the services of only four men to operate each weapon...Ease of movement is not criticized. Compared to other artillery the Gatling gun and its carriage is modest and can be easily drawn by two horses; whereas it requires four or six horses to draw other field guns.”

Adopted after the close of hostilities in America, the Gatling gun was a weapon without a war. Gatling and Colt salesmen hit the worldwide road to sell this highly successful revolving machine gun. Competition was tough, but the Gatling beat all comers. For example, in 1869, in Germany, the Gatling was pitted against a hundred expert marksmen armed with French rapid-fire and highly accurate “needle” guns. At 800 meters, the Gatling put 88% of its bullets in the target, while the competition scored 27%. With performance like this, the Gatling also won sales orders in England, Russia, France, Egypt, Morocco, China, Japan, Mexico, and in many South and Central American countries.

Gatling had secured a British patent in 1865 and his gun was officially adopted as a standard service weapon after the 1871 trials. The Armstrong Company working under a Gatling license manufactured his British weapon in England. The British used them with grand success in the Middle East, both on land and at sea. In 1879, the British used Gatlings against attacking Zulu tribesman, reporting that a single gun had swept down 475 tribesmen in a few minutes firing time. And, during the Franco-Prussian War, newsmen reported that Gatling salesmen gave the ultimate demonstration. They set-up their guns for the French and personally devastated a Prussian charge.

The French also armed many of their colonial armies with Gatling guns in the Middle East and in the Caribbean. In Canada, government troops used Gatling guns to put down Louis Reil’s “Northwest Rebellion” in 1885.

The Gatling gun was literally selling itself all over the world, gaining an international reputation as “the most reliable, accurate and deadly firing mechanism yet designed,” as a company brochure advertised.

The 1-inch model sold to individuals for $1,800 each, while the .50 caliber unit cost $1,200. Quantity prices for governments were somewhat cheaper, e.g. the smaller, round drum topped Camel model Gatling gun sold for $1,000. The .45/70 model sold for $850.

In the U.S. it was a different story. A nation at peace, its unimaginative military minds of the late 19th century could not yet accept using something as effectively radical as the Gatling gun, despite its international reputation. Official records show that each Army regiment had three Gatling guns, but very little is recorded as to actual use. Most seemed to have been stored in federal arsenals or unit armories. To paraphrase, many were issued, yet few served. Those that did, of course, were on the western frontier.

A battery of three Gatlings broke up a massed charge of Comanches and Kiowas in West Texas, saving a goodly portion of Gen. Major General Nelson A. Miles Indian Territory Expedition of 1874.

Then, sigh; there is the infamous George Custer/Gatling gun issue, an intellectual quagmire of miniscule parameters. Despite popular fiction to the contrary, history would have been no different had Gen. George Custer taken his three Gatlings with him when he went Indian hunting in the summer of 1876. Most military historians agree that the Gatlings would not have turned the tide for Custer’s forces against the onslaught of those thousands of Indians. It is said that the column of Indians leaving Little Big Horn after the battle was more than three miles long and half a mile wide. Even the fabled Gatlings couldn’t top odds like that, especially in that terrain.

Custer’s decision not to use Gatlings was based on both terrain and supply situations, and not the dislike of the weapon or the oft-quoted rumor that the guns would slow his assault pace. In 1874, while commanding his military expedition into the Black Hills, Custer wrote highly favorable comments about the Gatling guns in his reports.

Actually, the 7th Calvary had used Gatling guns some years earlier, when a bison stampede threatened the safety of the Hancock Expedition. Two Gatling guns commenced firing at some distance into the mammoth herd of raging animals, killing several dozen and splitting the herd away from the wagon train. By the way, for the benefit of today’s environmentally minded reader, the commander’s report noted that the wagon train used most of the meat for garrison and passenger consumption.

Another use of Gatling guns in the Indian Wars was against Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce at the Clearwater River in July of 1877. The outcome of this epic battle, in which Gatling guns figured greatly, was widely and colorfully reported in the NEW YORK TIMES. That fall, Gen. Miles used a Gatling-supported assault to force Chief Joseph and his band to surrender. According to Gen. Miles’ report, the brave and intelligent Indian leader inspected a Gatling gun, and then told officers, “From where the sun now stands I fight no more against the white man.” He kept his word, too, even though the white man often did not

Gatling guns were also used against Shoshones and Bannocks who were dug in near the Umatilla Agency in 1878. The storm of bullets form the Gatling quickly ended the rebellion, driving the Indians away from their hilly fort and back to their camp.

Meanwhile, back East, Gatling worked to perfect his gun. For example, later models used drum-type gravity feeders of both 200- and 400-round capacity. The model 1876 was designed as a mobile, lightweight weapon in army-issue .45 caliber, capable of firing 1,200 rpm. The 1893 Bulldog model was even smaller and designed for police use in riot control.

In 1893, the very active 75-year-old Richard Gatling was granted patents for a flat, metal strip feeder - ancestor of the belt-fed machine gun. Later that year, he patented an electric motor drive for his gun upping the firing rate to a maximum 3,000 rounds per minute. His final improvement was a prototype device, which could make the Gatling gun a gas-operated, fully automatic machine gun after the initial shot.

Despite technology and international success, it was not until 1898 that an American soldier first officially fired a Gatling gun against a foreign enemy. And then, it was only because a junior officer dared to defy tradition.

Lt. John H. Parker had an interest in these modern automatic weapons, and when the invasion of Cuba was being planned he asked his superiors for permission to organize a Gatling battery for the purpose of close support for assault infantry - a very radical idea at the time. Lt. Parker sold Col. Arthur MacArthur and Gen. William Shafter on his idea of Gatling guns supporting the invasion at Santiago. Both officers were keen on the idea and ordered Parker to form and train his battery.

The rest of the story is that Parker’s Gatlings turned the battle that day. Jesse Langdon, the last surviving member of the Rough Riders, recalled the Gatling guns during an interview in 1968, saying, “The Gatlings enfiladed the top of the Spanish trenches, keeping them down or killing them. We’d never have taken San Juan Hill without Lt. Parker’s Gatling guns,” Langdon told reporters.

Theodore Roosevelt himself added to the truth about the Gatling guns, and not solely regular troops or the Rough Riders, won the battle at Santiago. Roosevelt told a Hearst newsman “the way Parker handled those Gatling guns was the most striking feature of the campaign.”

In his memoirs, written while he was President, Roosevelt added that “Parker deserves more credit than any one man in the campaign...the support use of the Gatlings was magnificent...I’m glad we chose that weapon over the Colt or Maxims available.”

That day closed the era of the Gatling guns as an active American combat weapon, although it was not officially declared obsolete until 1911. Its inventor and chief advocate was 82 years old at the turn of the century and had turned his own interests back to designing farm machinery, leaving his weapons business to Colt. Gatling was active until the day of his death, 26 February 1903. The old man had been weakened by grippe, but had visited the offices of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN magazine on the morning of the day he died, to discuss farm technology.

With Gatling dead; his gun faded to history, too. The last publicized combat firing of an original Gatling gun was by units of Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries early in the Mexican Revolution.

The 1927 Bannerman Catalog of Military Goods listed a number of Gatling guns and accessories for sale to the public. They were offered as military surplus and outdated items. The catalog noted, “We have a large stock, purchased at the right prices and we can meet any legitimate competition.” Most were listed as “nearly new in all calibers from .30 to .45 to 1-inch models.” Prices were not listed, instead customers were invited to “inspect the merchandise and hear our bargain prices.”

That seemed to be it, all remaining stocks of historic Gatling guns had been regulated to surplus armament storage at Bannerman’s fabled castle on the Hudson River.

War being what it is, though, the story of the Gatling gun did not end.

American military officers, both combat wise and history rich, realized that Gatling’s gun had timeless merit .They rescued the basic design from historic obsolescence, when the Army adopted the Vulcan, a multi-barreled, 7.62x51mm machine gun developed by General Electric. The year was 1956, just 90 years after Gatling finally convinced his government to use his original multi-barreled machine gun.

The Vulcan has seen service as a tactical field weapon, but its major contribution to our military effort has been with the Air Force, mounted in helicopters, fighter-bombers, and in that awesome gun platform, the AC-47. Each of these guns is capable of firing up to 7,200 rpm. It is noteworthy that when the first Army Vulcan was tested, it was fired along side of a vintage Gatling from the past century.

The Gatling gun evolved into the GE Minigun, and Southeast Asia became its turf. The literature of Vietnam is full of vivid accounts of AC-47 and other gun ships and esoteric aerial battlewagons festooned with Miniguns literally pouring deadly gunfire into the countryside. Observers called it the most deadly small arms delivery system in the world.

A generation ago, as another war heated up, this one in Latin America, the AC-47 gun ships roared into battle, with the cry of “Puff the Magic Dragon flies again.” Which is what brought me to that hillside kill zone in 1986 as a civilian pacification advisor for the local government. And, that got me thinking about what happened to all the old Gatling guns stored in Bannerman’s basement and in arsenals around the world.

As most original Gatling guns are now in museums or private collections, they are rarely advertised for public sale. In 1981, an individual offered to sell his clean- condition, ten-barrel, .45 caliber, polished brass 1883 model with ammo tender, mount and other accessories for $39,000. Twenty years later, a dealer offered a Navy 1884 for $285,000. In 2002, Master Gatling builder, Bruce Guilmette, me told that he could find me an original Gatling “that you’d be proud to own” for between $100,00 and $225,000. Individually owned Gatlings are scarce; I’ve seen only two in my lifetime.

But, that sad fact did not end the story of the Gatling Gun Company, though, thanks to Karl Furr, a noted craftsman of miniature cannons, who was challenged by a customer to build a scaled down Gatling gun in 1968. The result was a 1/3-scale model 1883 firing .22 ammunition.

“The true challenge was working with original plans to convert the center fire .45/70 to .22 rimfire.” Furr said.

His part-time hobby turned into a full-time business as word of the Furr’s true craftsman’s work spread. Working with his son, Douglas, Karl Furr acquired the business name Gatling Gun Company.

They perfected the 1/3-scale models of the 1883 and 1874 Gatlings, and perfected the 1/2 scale 1876 model to fire .22 long rifle.

These fully working Gatling guns are constructed of solid brass, polished to a mirror finish, and eastern black walnut with a hand-rubbed oil finish. Each weapon has ten barrels and will fire up to 800 rpm. The beautiful miniature Gatling guns are true collector’s items.

Back in 1980, the 1876 1/2 scale model sold for $12,500, while the 1874 or 1883 1/3 scale was sold was $6,500. One was of the 1883 models sold for $12,000 in 2002, while a mint 1876 1/2 scale brought $23,000 in 2000. Alas, there were not enough buyers and their production ceased.

Today, Bruce Gilmette’s Gatling Gun Company produces full-sized, fully functional, authentic replicas of the basic 1862 Gatling gun in two configurations. One is a reenactor/demonstration model and the other is a fully operational, life fire model. The reenactor model also has a blank firing configuration as well.

His operational 1862 Gatling gun comes in either .50 caliber or .58 caliber and fires the black powder ammunition at a steady 600 rpm. The .50 caliber live-fire sells for $4,810, while the .58 caliber model runs $5,175. The reenactor units sell for $4,105. All are produced at the Company’s plant in Ortonville, Michigan.

Bruce said he also plans to add a 1905 model in .30-40 Krag, in kit form only, which includes all components needed to make a completely finished gun, except for the frame, which will need to be assembled. Each kit will cost around $25,000 and will include full completion instructions and an assembly video.

Another company, Paul Moore’s RG-G of Trinidad, Colorado, publishes and sells blueprints and definitive plans for serious collectors and shootists to build their own half-sized, .22 caliber Gatling gun. Recently, they added finished, fully functional .22 caliber Gatling guns to their product list.

New, original, or miniature Gatling guns may be bought by anyone as they are not legally machine guns, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

“These are expensive, historically important collectors’ weapons and are not regarded today as machine guns in the legal sense of that term. They do not come under the provisions of the National Firearms Act,” an ATF spokesman told me recently.

The genius of its inventor has brought the Gatling gun through the full evolutionary cycle from loose powder and percussion caps to metallic cartridge, from black to smokeless powder, from hand crank to electric motor, from ground to air, from rebirth in modern warfare and now back in original form for collectors. It’s the type of tribute Richard Gatling would have liked.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V6N8 (May 2003)
and was posted online on November 22, 2013


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