New College of the Humanities

The Death of Richard Gatling

The man who gave his name to the notorious killing machine died on February 26th, 1903

Richard Gatling
Richard Gatling

The inventor of the most efficient mass killing machine of its time lived to the age of 84 and died in his bed. Richard Jordan Gatling came from a well-to-do family of planters in North Carolina. He took after his father in having a flair for machinery and in his twenties he invented a screw propeller for ships, only to find that someone else had invented it just before him. He next produced a machine for planting rice, wheat and other crops, went into business in St Louis, Missouri, to manufacture it and invented other agricultural machines which contributed to the mechanisation of American agriculture.

The American Civil War turned Gatling from the ploughshare to the sword. In 1862 he patented his first rapid-fire machine gun, which had six rotating barrels and was cranked by hand. The cartridges were fed automatically into the barrels from a drum on top of the weapon. The Gatling gun chattered away at 200 rounds per minute, though it tended to jam if cranked too fast. The gun was mounted on a two-wheeled carriage and later models had ten barrels instead of six. His new gun, Gatling said, bore the same relation to other firearms that a sewing machine did to a needle. ‘A few men with it can perform the work of a regiment.’ He managed to place a few of them with the Union Navy, but the Union Army’s conservative authorities refused to test the new weapon and very few of them went into service. He developed an improved model in 1865 and the Army adopted it the following year, by which time the Civil War was almost over. The casualties had surely been high enough without it.

From 1870 the gun was manufactured at Hartford, Connecticut by the Colt firm. Later models could fire 1,200 rounds a minute when hand-cranked and 3,000 rounds per minute with an electric motor attached. Sizeable sales were made abroad and the British, French, Spanish, Russian, Turkish and Japanese armies equipped themselves with Gatling guns, as did the British Navy.

They were used by both sides in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. They mowed down Zulus in hundreds at Ulundi in 1879, massacred Egyptians at Tel-el-Kebir in 1882, where the sound they made was likened to tearing calico, and were employed by the American expeditionary force in Cuba in 1898. By that time the Gatling gun had been made obsolete by its even more lethal descendants, which harnessed the weapon’s recoil to load, fire, spit out the used cartridge and reload. The first machine guns of the new type were made by another American, Hiram Maxim.

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