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From the History Books

The First Gatling Gun

by Garry James   |  July 8th, 2011 6

Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling patented his revolutionary repeater during the Civil War in late 1862. Like later models, the first gun achieved its high rate of fire by mechanical means, employing rotating barrels operated by a hand crank which fed special steel chambers, loaded with powder, bullets and backed by percussion caps, from a hopper to the mechanism. As the handle was turned, the six barrels rotated and the chambers dropped into a carrier where they were fired, one at a time, by strikers dedicated to the individual barrels. The chambers then dropped free of the gun where they could be retrieved and reloaded.

GATLING PATENTGatling’s contrivance was by no means the only machine gun that appeared during the Civil War. Most notably, there were the single-barreled Union Repeating Gun, dubbed by Abraham Lincoln the “Coffee Mill Gun” because of its resemblance to a coffee grinder, and the Ripley Gun and Requa Battery, both of which employed multiple stationary barrels.

The Gatling was actually tested and  received high marks from those Army and Navy officers who witnessed it in action.  But for political and logistical reasons, the gun didn’t receive the attention it merited. The only Gatlings used by the Army were a dozen  purchased by Federal General Benjamin F. Butler, which Gatling himself claimed to have seen action, “in repelling rebel attacks upon the Union forces…near Richmond, Virginia.” Hearsay has it some also may have been used by the U.S. Navy Mississippi River flotilla, though there is no direct evidence to support this conjecture one way or the other.

With the emergence of the self-contained cartridge it was possible to improve the Gatling Gun even more, and without bogging the reader down with too many details (fascinating though they may be) let it suffice to say the gun ultimately became a huge success both domestically and with foreign governments, even down to today where the system is used in such military arms as the  Minigun, M61 Vulcan and GAU-8.


  • Kenneth Flippin

    My grandfather was in the cavalry when they first recieved their BAR's. This was their first automatic weapon without a tripod. It was like the mexican general on Wild bunch because they didn't understand about muzzel flip and ended up shooting a lot of sky. Also did you notice Strother Martin had a 1903 A3 sighted Springfield instead of the proper ladder sight in that movie.

  • Garry James

    Yes. And Bill Holden carried a Star 9mm because they didn't have proper blanks for .45 autos at that time. Too, the 1917 would have been a bit late for the period. Still my favorite western of all time though.

  • robert38-55

    Gary I need your expertise here…. correct me if I am wrong..I am thinking that the gatling gun,combined with the invention of self contained metalic cartridges, and the spencer and henery repeating rifle and colts revolver, probably did more for advancements in rapid fire weapons than any other invention in the gun world? Which one do you say actually paved the way for the modern day rapid fire? Also I was talking to another gun owner the other day about machine guns and the like, he said he saw on the TV show pawn stars that someone somewhere had an original gatling gun and they wanted to sell it for 325,000 dollars!? An original 45-70 gatling guns brings that much money?

    • Garry James

      Good question. While rapid fire guns had been around for at least a couple of hundred years prior to the introduction of the Gatling, They were not all that reliable or practical. The improved Gatling, using a self-contained cartridge gave true legitimacy to the machine gun concept, even though it took awhile to make them really portable. For the most part, they remained defensive weapons used more like artillery than anything else. The next big step was Hiram Maxim's fully-automatic MG–as important in its way as was the Gatling–perhaps even more. Yes. Original Gatlings go for big bucks. U.S. Armament makes a wonderful copy of the Model 1877 Bulldog Gatling in .45-70 that it a lot of fun to shoot and considerably more affordable than a period piece.

  • Bob Owen

    I flew a Cobra helicopter gunship equiped with the 20mm Vulcan cannon version of the gatlin gun in Vietnam and Cambodia. Still a very valid weapon design today. It was a fun gun to shoot also. Speaking of the .45-70, will the .45 long Colt cartridge fire in a trapdoor springfield like the .410 shotshell?

  • Alan_T

    Just like the Nock's Volley Gun …….. ever notice there's never one around when you need one ? ? ?

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