11/04 – The Gatling Gun

A drawing of the Gatling Gun showing its multiple barrels and old-fashioned design. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1862 Dr Richard J. Gatling patented the Gatling gun. The Gatling, a multi-barreled hand-cranked firearm, was one of the first machine guns and the deadliest rapid-firing weapon of its kind up to that point. The Gatling was capable of firing up to 900 rounds/minute; with its 6 or 10 barrels, it could fire for long periods of time without overheating. It was first used during the Siege of St Petersburg (1864) in the American Civil War, and saw service from the Anglo-Zulu War (1879) to the Chinese Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). Because of its cumbersome design, the gun was typically mounted on train cars, boats or carriages; it was difficult to operate, but the sheer firepower it brought to the battlefield was terrifying enough to impress most enemies into surrender. Because of the fear-factor the Gatling possessed, it was used frequently in colonial skirmishes to intimidate less advanced enemies.

Inspired by the seemingly senseless combat of the American Civil War, Dr Gatling hoped to create a weapon so terrifying that it would show humanity the folly of war and create a lasting peace. Despite his best intentions Gatling, a Unionist with secret Confederate connections, had kicked off the age of the Machine Gun, where weapons designers competed to build better guns capable of killing more soldiers on the battlefield. A direct competitor, the Maxim Gun, was used in various iterations by all belligerents in WW1. Despite common misconceptions, machine guns weren’t the deadliest weapon of that war – artillery was – but the advent of the machine gun made it possible to kill massed infantry faster than ever before. Despite Dr Gatling’s best intentions, his innovation – portable automatic fire – only made war deadlier.

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