The Gatling Gun

Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling’s gun ushered in a new era of weaponry during the Civil War and his design continues to influence today. In The Gatling Gun Peter Smithurst covers the origins, combat record, and lasting influence this pre-Maxim rapid repeater has had. As with all titles from Osprey Publishing (, this is a fully illustrated history worthy of coffee table status.

Gatling was a product of the Yankee ingenuity praised by Alexander Hamilton. He held a medical degree and was a prolific inventor. While Gatling’s invention is influential and important, it is sometimes wrongfully attributed as being the first rapid fire weapon employed. The Ribauldequin, an early volley gun, was first fielded in 1339 and the revolver-like Puckle Gun in 1718. The Mitrailleuse is a multi-barreled volley gun invented by Belgian Army Captain Fafschamps a decade before the advent of the Gatling gun. None of these designs had an ammunition feed mechanism, just multiple, preloaded barrels. The Ager “Coffee Mill” gun, also known as the Union Repating Gun, was a single barrel mechanical repeater that used a hopper to feed paper cartridges. While the gun worked, the design problems included breech sealing problems, detotating ammunition in the hopper and a single barrel. Even at a plodding 100 round per minute pace, forcing seven pounds of lead and burning 7,500 grains of propellant down the bore quickly overheated. Gatling’s design was the first to successfully overcome these issues. Where Gatling’s design shines is it was the first to combine a feed mechanism using then-new metallic cartridges with multiple barrels. With a trained crew, the gun was capable of sustained rates of fire over the long term. It wasn’t until 1884 with Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim’s design did the Gatling have real competition. Even after Maxim and Browning, the Gatling remained in service for well over a decade. Some historians argue the Gatling proved more effective than the Colt–Browning M1895 “potato digger” during the Spanish-American War.

The hand-cranked Gatling gun continued service in the United States into the Twentieth century with versions produced chambered in .30-03 and .30-06 service cartridges as the M1900 and M1903. The design was declared obsolete by the United States Army by 1911. Decades later the mechanical concept was resurrected and wedded to electricity-driven cranking in the M61 Vulcan. That cannon has given rise to numerous variations scaled from 5.56mm up to 37mm in various applications.

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