There are some things that stand the test of time and Richard Gatling’s invention of the earliest days of the American Civil War has certainly fit that description. Gatling was an inventor who fashioned the first machine gun, although a different design by most standards. His basic design with many modern variants is still in use today.

Gatling was born in 1818 in North Carolina and began at an early age to fashion many new inventions. Included in those were improved steamboat screw propellers, a rice sowing machine, and a wheat drill that would aid in planting wheat. In 1850, he contracted smallpox and became interested in medicine. After graduating from college as a doctor, he decided to eschew medicine and go back to being an inventor full-time.

In particular was his interest in firearms. In 1861, with the armies of the United States and the Confederate States of America still using Revolutionary War tactics, Gatling developed one of the first and best known early rapid-fire spring loaded, hand-cranked weapons and a forerunner of the modern machine gun and rotary cannon that is in use today by modern forces. He first developed it in 1861, started his Gatling Gun company and patented it in 1862. He hoped to show the futility of war and his weapon, he hoped would cut down on deaths by combat and disease, and on the need for so many troops

The “Gatling Gun” operated with 6-10 barrels which eased in the cooling process of the barrels and synchronized the firing-reloading sequence. Each barrel would fire a single shot when it reached a certain point in the cycle, then it ejected the spent cartridge, loaded 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.

Because it required the use of a hand crank to operate the weapon, it was not a true machine gun. Hiram Maxim in 1883 would patent a weapon that used the recoil of the firing sequence to reload the weapon to construct the first real machine gun.

It was used only a very little during the American Civil War, most notably during the siege of Petersburg and on gunboats. There, local commanders purchased them as it was not adopted by the U.S. Army until 1866. It did, however, serve in the Spanish-American War, during the assault on San Juan Hill. As well as in the Boshin War in Japan and the Anglo-Zulu War.

From Wikipedia: 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.

The early models used a paper cartridge charged with black powder and primed with a percussion cap. In 1881, the weapon switched to .45-70 cartridges. Then in 1893, the Gatling Gun was adapted to take the newer, .30 Army smokeless cartridge. The new M1893 guns featured six barrels, later increased to ten barrels, and were capable of a maximum rate of fire of 800–900 rounds per minute, however,  600 rpm was the maximum sustained rate of fire. Gatling later tested several M1893 prototypes powered by electric motor and belt to replace the hand crank. Tests demonstrated the electric Gatling could fire bursts of up to 1,500 rpm. This would eventually drive technology far in the future to dust off his invention to create the modern “Gatling-Gun” types in use today.

In 1947 after World War II, the new U.S. Air Force was looking to upgrade the weapons on their aircraft from the .50 caliber MGs that had armed its fighters and bombers during the war and had been rendered obsolete. General Electric decided to take another look at the electric Gatling Gun. After experimenting with different calibers, the Air Force decided to stick with the 20×102 mm cartridge. They eventually did away with linked ammunition which caused numerous feed problems and settled onto a linkless ammunition feed system was developed for the upgraded M61A1 Vulcan cannon. The Gatling Gun had come full circle.


Later, the same system was configured to fit helicopters in a scaled-down version. The M134 was similar to the M61A1 but it fired the much smaller 7.62mm primed rifle cartridge. Capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute, the M134 was used on a number of helicopters, such as the UH-1 “Huey”, OH-6, and AH-1 Cobra, as well as the AC-47 gunships (Spooky), during the Vietnam War.

The crew-served version of the M134 is the GAU-17. Mounted either on helicopters, vehicles or boats the GAU-17 is very similar to the M134 except that it is equipped with a selector switch that allows the gunner to fire on High (4000 RPM) or Low (2000 RPM). The GAU-17 is currently in widespread service with the US military.

Later in his life, Dr. Gatling would patent several new inventions to improve toilets, bicycles, steam-cleaning of raw wool, pneumatic power, among others. He was elected as the first president of the American Association of Inventors and Manufacturers. He died in 1903 while visiting his daughter in New York City and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Photos: US Military, DOD and Fort Laramie Museum