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Richard Gatling and His Gun
A Revolution in Warfare
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On 12 September we honor Richard Jordan Gatling, born in Herford County, North Carolina, in 1818. Gatling was many things in his life—a physician who never practiced medicine, a county clerk, a merchant. But the most important thing we remember about Gatling is that he was an inventor with a wide range of output. His first inventions were a rice-sewing machine and a wheat drill that were both quite successful. However, Gatling comes down to us in history as the man who invented a practical modern machine gun.
John Ellis, in his Social History of the Machine Gun (1975), turns this singular machine into a demonic device, while Gatling’s goal was to reduce casualties and make war less attractive to settle disputes. Sound familiar?
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. Albert Einstein.
The Gatling gun was not a novel invention, as there had been many unsuccessful attempts at creating "battery guns" throughout history. Most battery guns failed because of their laborious reloading. Gatling used the newer technology of the self-contained metallic cartridge and mounted his weapon on a large frame with a detachable magazine. Then he fed the ammunition into multiple barrels that were presented serially as he turned a crank. It was this combination of distinct features that made the Gatling work. While the rate of fire depended in part on how fast the operator could turn the crank, it was less than 100 rounds a minute if the operator wanted to avoid jams, which were frequent. While that sounds anemic to us, in the 19th Century it was phenomenal. One or two men could put out as many rounds in a minute as an infantry squad of ten with breechloaders. Also, the weapon had superior range to that of a rifle of the same caliber because they mounted it on a rigid cannon carriage that absorbed the recoil and provided a steady platform.
But the US Army wasn’t that interested.
The same reasons the Army stalled on repeating rifles and carbines they had for the Gatling: they wasted ammunition by “excited fire” and the difficulty of resupply of so much ammunition. The Navy, however, was more interested, and bought several. After other countries purchased the weapon—and licenses to manufacture them—the Army got around to buying several. They didn’t show up at the Little Big Horn (not that it would have mattered). Then Maxim came up with his gas-operated, self-loading machine gun. And the Army wasn’t that interested in them, either. Maxim moved to England.
Then came Hotchkiss, Colt, and Lewis…
And the Army showed little interest in their automatic weapons, either. In 1898, the only automatic weapons the US Army had were Gatling guns. The Regular Army took a battery of them to Cuba; state militia units took machine guns they bought themselves, including the Colt. The Army, certain in their judgement that these weapons were only useful in the defense, saw what they wanted to see, which was the poorly deployed Gatling guns were of limited effect.
The Spanish had Maxim guns…
Ask the 10th Cavalry and the Rough Riders, charging up San Juan/Kettle Hill, how ineffective the Spanish machine guns were (hint: they were very effective). But that was a minor war, really, and Spain was hardly a world power. Then came the Russo-Japanese War, where Russian machine guns decimated the Japanese with their machine guns. Then, the curtain rose on the Great War in Europe, and the machine gun, in the right hands, came into its own.
The home of the first machine gun inventor remained ignorant of its own progeny.
Armies almost forgot about the design of the hand-powered Gatling gun, which was devastatingly powerful in Africa during the European struggles of empire, once they licensed and copied Maxim's gas-operated weapons and Browning's recoil-operated guns in the late 19th century. Ironically, Gatling put an electric motor on one of his guns in 1893, achieving a theoretical rate of fire of 3,000 rounds per minute (there was no way to feed the weapon that fast then).
Gatling passed away in 1903, before he realized how devastating automatic weapons could be.
The US, the home of most machine gun inventors and innovators, disdained the weapons until 1917, when they witnessed for themselves the “marriage made in Hell” of barbed wire and machine guns. Ironically, both innovations were American. And the Americans eventually caught up with the rest of the world, then surpassed most of them, and reinvented Gatling’s electric gun with the Vulcan antiaircraft weapon, the “minigun” mounted in fixed and rotary-wing gunships, the Phalanx ship to air system, and all the other variants.
Funny how this kind of thing just keeps coming around…
Many of the stories in Sergeant’s Business feature the descendents of Gatling’s invention. These stories have a tendency, I’m told, to grab the reader’s attention like few other stories do. They are all intended to show the ultimate cruelty and savagery of the kind of violence that Gatling wanted to minimise, but ultimately…yeah, his progeny made it worse.
My fans—there are a few—are often too kind, but that’s OK. I’m still thinking about writing more short stories…another collection.
The Prize Game: Making Money on War
Myths and Legends of Shiloh II
On 16 September:
1530: Shawmut becomes Boston, in the Massachusetts Bay colony. There’s some controversy about what Shawmut means in Algonquin, but the general agreement is “place of clear waters.” Would that the Charles and the Bay were clear now…
1891: Karl Doenitz is born in Grünau, a neighborhood of Berlin, Germany. Doenitz joined the Prussian Navy in 1910, went into U-Boat service and rose to command all U-Boats in WWII. In 1945, Hitler bequeathed Germany to Doenitz before he killed himself. Doenitz was the last head of the Third Reich.
And today is NATIONAL STEPFAMILY DAY. As a product of, married into, and the creator of a step-family, I can attest that they have their difficulties like conventional families, but that feeling of outsider…always hard to get over. My late step-sister-in-law, a product of several step-families, always told me to strive for neutrality. Good advice…