The Gatling gun is one of the most iconic early rapid-firing guns, a forerunner to the machine gun that revolutionized warfare. Gatling’s spring loaded, hand-cranked weapon was first used by Union forces during the American Civil War in the early 1860s, but it didn’t see widespread use by US forces until after the war.

Dr. Richard Gatling designed the weapon he said, in a hope to reduce the size of armies, and by showing how futile combat is, the number of combat deaths would decrease.

Gatling was born in Hertford County, North Carolina in 1818, he was an inventor who came up with a screw propeller for steamboats, and then after teaching school for a brief time invented the rice-sowing machine and a wheat drill which aided in the planting of wheat. Both of these inventions were lauded for their innovation in helping the farming industry.

Richard Gatling Applies for a Patent on His Gatling Gun, December, 1862

When he was in his late 20s an attack of smallpox got Gatling interested in medicine. He graduated Ohio Medical College as an MD but his passion lay in inventing and not being a doctor.

When the Civil War began, he was living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He invented the Gatling Gun in 1861 and began the Gatling Gun Company a year later.

The Gatling gun’s operation centered on a cyclic multi-barrel design which aided in the cooling and integrate the firing/reloading sequence. Each barrel fired a single shot when the hand crank reached a certain point in the firing cycle, then eject the spent cartridge, load a new round, and, in the process, allowed the barrel to cool somewhat. This configuration allowed higher rates of fire to be achieved without the barrels overheating.

This design, although massive updated and improved, is in theory what the multi-barrel miniguns of today were based on, including the M-134 minigun and M-61 Vulcan.

Gatling’s rapid-fire gun used multiple rotating barrels turned by a gunner using a hand crank, and firing loose metal cartridge ammunition using a gravity feed system from a hopper. The weapon didn’t use links or a belt which is what later models of machine guns would be utilizing and are still used today.

The use of multiple barrels was a brilliant idea to limit the weapon from overheating, a rotating mechanism, and the gravity-feed reloading system, which allowed a new gunner to reach an unheard of high rate of fire for the time of 200 rounds per minute.

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One member of Special Boat Team 22 (SBT-22) lays down cover fire with a minigun during a practice narrow river beach extraction.
Photo by PH1 Shane T. McCoy

Basic Design: (from Wiki) The Gatling gun operated by a hand-crank mechanism, with six barrels revolving around a central shaft (although some models had as many as ten). Each barrel fires once per revolution at about the same position. The barrels, a carrier, and a lock cylinder were separate and all mounted on a solid plate revolving around a central shaft, mounted on an oblong fixed frame. Turning the crank rotated the shaft. The carrier was grooved and the lock cylinder was drilled with holes corresponding to the barrels.

The casing was partitioned, and through this opening, the barrel shaft was journaled. In front of the casing was a cam with spiral surfaces. The cam imparted a reciprocating motion to the locks when the gun rotated. Also in the casing was a cocking ring with projections to cock and fire the gun. Each barrel had a single lock, working in the lock cylinder on a line with the barrel. The lock cylinder was encased and joined to the frame. Early models had a fibrous matting stuffed in among the barrels, which could be soaked with water to cool the barrels down. Later models eliminated the matting-filled barrels as being unnecessary.

Cartridges, held in a hopper, dropped individually into the grooves of the carrier. The lock was simultaneously forced by the cam to move forward and load the cartridge, and when the cam was at its highest point, the cocking ring freed the lock and fired the cartridge. After the cartridge was fired the continuing action of the cam drew back the lock bringing with it the spent cartridge which then dropped to the ground.

By 1893, the Gatling was adapted to take the new .30 Army smokeless cartridge. The new M1893 guns featured six barrels, later increased to ten barrels, and were capable of a maximum (initial) rate of fire of 800–900 rounds per minute, though 600 rpm was recommended for continuous fire. Dr. Gatling later used examples of the M1893 powered by electric motor and belt to drive the crank. Tests demonstrated the electric Gatling could fire bursts of up to 1,500 rpm.

Civil War Use: The Gatling gun was not accepted for use by the Army during the early years of the war. However, in 1864, several Union commanders purchased 12 Gatling guns out of their own pocket to use during the heavy fighting in and around Petersburg. The guns were placed in the trenches in support of the Union troops sieging Petersburg between June 1864 until the city fell in April 1865. The Gatling Gun was finally accepted into the US Army in 1866.

Later Use: The Army used Gatling Guns during the Indian wars in the west, although one commander, George Armstrong Custer, decided against bringing his Gatling Guns in the operation against the Sioux in 1876 at the Little Big Horn. His unit, the 7th Cavalry was wiped out.

The British adopted the Gatling Gun and used it to great effect in Africa against the Zulu tribesmen. The Imperial Russian Army used them against mounted mass attacks of Turkish cavalry.

The Americans used them during the Spanish-American War in Cuba. They served as support weapons during the charge up San Juan Hill.

Photos: Wikipedia