Dr. Gatling, Indianapolis and the Age of the Automatic
“If war was made more terrible, it would have a tendency to keep peace among the nations of the earth.” – Richard Gatling
For nine months, Union and Confederate soldiers had fought for feet in the thirty miles of filthy trenches surrounding Petersburg. Victims died as much from the unsanitary conditions of trench warfare as firearms. The city stood as the final Southern fortress in the death rattle of the Confederacy.
One afternoon in 1865, a lone supply train whistled to a stop well outside the city and twelve canvas-wrapped contraptions were slowly wheeled out of a car. Covered in canvas and smelling of gun oil, they were rolled to the long trenches, surrounded by a buzzing crowd of Union soldiers.
The soldiers had heard rumors of new weapons coming to the field, but nothing more specific than rumors. They DID know these contraptions weren’t Army-issued. Several generals had privately purchased the weapons for use in the trenches of Petersburg.
Kept safely away from Confederate artillery range, officers unveiled the curious devices, and soldiers whispered with both amusement and awe. They were obviously guns, but none had ever seen guns like this before. These things looked like Dr. Frankenstein’s take on firearms.
They had the familiar carriage and size of anti-personnel artillery, which would make them easy to aim or position by hand, rather than relying on horses or rail like the largest cannon.
But that’s where the similarity ended. There wasn’t one barrel but six, all strapped neatly together at both ends, covered in a thin housing. The barrels turned by a large hand crank, almost like that of a meat grinder, positioned at its rear breech. The new brass fittings glimmered in the sunlight. Strangest of all was a wide-mouthed metal hopper balanced on top.
No one knew quite what to make of it.
To demonstrate, the officers had several logs rolled seventy-five yards away from one of the guns. Once clear of the targets, the onlookers were nudged away from the small gun, which stood only chest high. A single officer stepped forward and dumped a bag of fresh cartridges into the hopper. Literally dumped it in. The soldiers knew it would only take seconds to jam.
Another officer called out the ready and the soldiers waited.
As easily as twirling a fish reel, the officer turned the gun’s crank. The ten barrels started to revolve and a torrent of fire and thick smoke belched out from the barrels, tearing into the target logs. Shreds and shards of wood exploded as a hundred .58 caliber bullets (roughly as wide as an adult’s index finger) stabbed into and through the target log. In thirty seconds the demonstration was over. The twenty-inch log was a splintered memory, sliced neatly in half from gunfire.
The age of machine guns had been born.
But its birth wasn’t on the battlefield of Petersburg, or in a New York factory. It began in Indianapolis, in the cramped workshop of a physician.
Born in North Carolina, Richard Gatling had jumped from career to career his entire life, with his only constant being the need to tinker. In thirty years he had found success as a steamboat engineer, county clerk, teacher, traveling merchant and agricultural engineer. After suffering a near-fatal case of smallpox, Richard Gatling decided to pursue a career in medicine, becoming a medical doctor in 1850.
Instead of practicing medicine, he returned to his real vocation: tinkering. He set up shop in Indianapolis, working on a cornucopia of inventions. It wasn’t until the outbreak of the Civil War that he found the focus he needed for his greatest, and most disappointing, invention.
His hope for the Gatling gun wasn’t profit. Richard Gatling had already found wealth with his many agricultural patents. He wanted to invent a weapon that would act as a force multiplier, reducing the need for the seas of soldiers now marching, fighting and dying on battlefields across the United States. Fewer men meant fewer casualties, both from wounds and from disease.
Often working around the clock in his Indianapolis workshop, Richard Gatling hoped his device would replace the effective but cumbersome canister shot used on the battlefield, where artillery was transformed into a giant shotgun, bringing down swaths of soldiers with each shot, but being slow to load, aim and fire. His gun would be small, portable, easy to load and fire, and would serve the same purpose. A handful of minimally trained operators could hold off entire companies of soldiers.
He submitted several patents for the Gatling gun, referring to it formally as the “Battery Gun”. The first was in 1862, with subsequent patents filed in 1865, 1870 and 1872. Although the specifications of the gun changed over time, the original fired .58 caliber bullets at a rate of 200 rounds per minute. The rotating barrels prevented the weapon from overheating and the intuitive hopper feed made loading the weapon a cinch.
Since the gun relied on hand cranking to fire, and not the energy of expelled rounds, it technically isn’t the first automatic weapon, but it filled the same niche and demonstrated the advantages of such a design. Later on, Gatling would reveal an electric motor to replace the hand crank, allowing his gun to fire at a nightmarish rate of 3,000 rounds a minute!
Like other terrible weapons of war, its inventor did not design it in hopes of killing, but to bring the killing to an end. And, like many other terrible weapons of war, that is not what happened. The Civil War ended before the US Army adopted the Gatling gun, apprehensive about its rapid rate of fire, which was considered wasteful.
After the Civil War, Richard Gatling’s invention founds use on American naval vessels, in South America and Canada. The expansion of the British empire into Africa and India is largely due to the Gatling gun and Russia alone deployed hundreds of them to Asia to subjugate bands of nomads. To Richard Gatling’s dismay, his weapon to end wars became a weapon of dominance and colonialism.
Eventually, the Gatling gun’s carriage and size became a liability for moving armies, and it was replaced by the Colt-Browning M1895, a tripod-mounted automatic gun capable of 450 rounds per minute. Gatling turned away from war machines and instead occupied himself with a variety of different inventions, improving bicycles, textile machinery and pneumatic devices.
Richard Gatling died in 1903 at the age of 84 in New York City. His body was returned to Indianapolis, where he was buried at the Crown Hill Cemetery.