The Gatling Gun

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The Gatling Gun, invented by a young man from North Carolina for the Union Army brought about the beginnings of modern warfare and still haunts the battlefield today.

Modern warfare is defined by the advent of the higher-level killing machines, such as the machine gun. The father of the machine gun (not withstanding Hiram Maxim) was Dr Richard Gatling. Gatling was the son of a North Carolina farmer. In his twenties he invented a steamship prop and a planting device known as a wheat drill. He moved from the south and marketed his inventions. Seeing an opportunity in the Civil War, he founded the Gatling Gun Company in 1862 and promptly began marketing the weapon.

The Gatling Gun - christophereger - 216139-gat1865-506.jpg

The Gatling Gun was a simple. It consisted of a six rifled barrels around a central revolving cylinder. The weapon was top feed paper 58 caliber cartridges through a hopper that aligned the rounds into the open chamber. It was operated by turning the distinctive hand crank to the side of the weapon that turned the mechanism. As the barrels rotated through the hopper assembly and the round was fed , it was fired as soon the action closed, then rotated away, expelling the shell casing before rotating back around. It was a cumber- some weapon with each barrel weighing as much as three pounds each. The bronze and iron frame, hopper, cylinder and bands that held the contraption together combined with its two wheeled carriage ended up with a weapon that approached 100 pounds. However it could attain a concentrated fire of two-hundred rounds per minute.

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Hotchkiss designed and built several large versions of revolving cannon of upto 37mm using Gatling's design. These suped up guns were common on naval vessels around the world from 1880-1910.

A dozen of the weapons were purchased privately and used by General Benjamin "Butcher" Butler during the siege of St Petersburg towards the tail end of the Civil War to great effect and this led to formal adoption in limited numbers by the US Army. Foreign observers reported on the weapon and orders were placed by the French, British and Japanese militaries in the 1870s. The weapons saw yeoman service overseas including in the Zulu Wars and the Franco-Prussian conflict. Later versions used drums holding 50 or 45 caliber brass cartridges that increased the weapons reliability and rate of fire. The 1877 Bulldog model was capable of firing as fast as 1000-rounds per minute.

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-9th U.S. Infantry Gattling gun detachment in court of the
Forbidden City, Peking, China, 1900


The weapon was relegated to second line service after the adoption of lighter Colt, Marlin and Browning machine guns in the 1890's. Gatling's own company and all of its patents were sold to Colt in 1897, six years before the inventor's death. In 1906 US stocks on hand were converted to the new 30 caliber smokeless (30.06) round fired by the Springfield 1903 Rifle. By 1911 the US Army's Bureau of Ordinance listed the weapon as surplus to the needs of the Army and inventories on hand were discarded.

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- The telephone pole sized GAU8 30mm cannon found on the A10 Warthog attack plane is the ultimate Gatling gun.

Dr Gatling's genius was re-discovered in the 1940s when the Vulcan electric powered Gatling gun was designed for use by jet aircraft. This family of weapons exists to this day and fire rounds as large as 30mm upto 10,000 rounds per minute. They are in use all over the world.

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