Richard Gatling: Shooting Star

Richard Gatling and the invention of the Machine Gun.

Richard  Jordan  Gatling
Richard Jordan Gatling.

When Richard Jordan Gatling (1818-1903) invented the machine gun in the early 1860s, he imagined his devastating new weapon would “to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently [reduce] exposure to battle….” To be sure, the Gatling gun reduced the relative lethality of war, but it also triggered an arms race that produced increasingly impersonal and deadly weapons. In the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of men were literally mowed down by Gatling guns and their progeny—hardly the life-saving device its creator envisioned. 

Today, most Americans are familiar with the name Gatling—or at least know “gat” as slang for firearm—yet the man behind the gun remains largely unknown. In “Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel” (Viking), author Julia Keller, cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, seeks to raise Gatling’s historical profile, reminding us that this seemingly unappreciated self-taught engineer registered more than three-dozen patents during his lifetime, including ground-breaking inventions like a dry-cleaning machine and improved flush toilet. 

Failure interviewed Keller about the Gatling biography, and asked her to explain why a man she describes as a “misunderstood genius”—a celebrity and legend in his own time—has been forgotten by history. 

Most people know a man named Gatling invented the machine gun. But what did he create exactly?

He invented the first working machine gun—a battery gun, it was called—one which wouldn’t overheat or jam and could be used in battle. It wasn’t what we think of today as an automatic weapon, in which one trigger pull initiates automatic firing. It was operated with a hand crank, and utilized the same technology as his seed planter, which he patented in the 1840s. The seed planter included a round cylinder in which one would put seeds, and the hand crank would turn it and seeds would drop down into the furrow. He used the same idea, except instead of seeds he used bullets. 

Why was he successful when so many other inventors before him had failed to create a reliable battery gun?

It was the technical configuration. It was so good that during the Vietnam War, when General Electric set out to create the M134—a [vehicle-mounted, six-barreled] Gatling gun, but one with an automatic trigger—they used Gatling’s 1862 patent. 

The first public demonstration of the Gatling gun was in the spring of 1862. Why didn’t the North take advantage of it during the Civil War? 

Throughout military history, generals have always liked the idea that a battle has a kind of romantic patina to it. It’s one-on-one, and whoever has the greater strength and whoever believes harder in the cause is going to win. Suddenly you had this change where winning a battle wasn’t a matter of who had the superior force, it was who had the best machine. This was a new idea in the history of the world and it did not sit very well with generals. It seemed like an unfair advantage, and they resisted it for decades.

How did 19th century soldiers feel about using Gatling guns? 

Like the generals, they were resistant. They liked this idea of the element of struggle—the elemental battle between one soldier and another. Then came this machine, which just seemed unfair. There’s a line in the book: “It felt like hiding a rock in a snowball.” For the first time in history you were able to kill people en masse without knowing who you had killed. Before you had to load your musket and could look the enemy right in the eye. Now you could be far away, and you can imagine what kind of a moral effect that might have and how it would force us to think about the taking of human life in an entirely different way.

Did Gatling really believe his gun would save lives—that it would be a tool of peace? 

He absolutely did. It’s hard for us to believe today but in many ways his basic philosophy has been borne out. He had a twofold idea. His first idea was that if you reduced the number of men required to fight a war, you would have fewer casualties. If you could send ten men to do the work of what a hundred had done—that’s what a battery gun did, it replaced men on the battlefield—you would have fewer casualties.

His second idea was, if you create a weapon that is fearsome to behold, the other side will be intimidated and give up. That’s what happened at the end of World War II with the atomic bomb. But the idea of a weapon as a deterrent was a new idea [in the mid-19th century], and that was very much Gatling’s motivation as well. 

When did the U.S. Army finally begin using the Gatling gun? 

After the Civil War. In 1866 the Army said, Fine, we’ll use it. By that time, some of the ordinance officers had been replaced with younger counterparts who were more willing to look at innovative weaponry. And the Army did use it throughout the last part of the 19th century, as did armies all over the world. 

Is it true that George Custer had the opportunity to have Gatling guns on hand at the Little Bighorn but chose not to use them? 

He did. Some thought this was yet another symbol of Custer’s fatal pride and hubris. But there is some thought that in that circumstance the Gatling gun might not have been useful because of the very uneven and craggy terrain. At that time, Gatling guns were carried by two-wheeled vehicles called limbers and they were difficult to move around. Moving them into place would have been problematic. 

How was the Gatling gun received outside the U.S.?

Very well. Gatling sold his gun in more than 50 countries. For several decades it was the machine gun that everybody wanted. Then, as often happens, Gatling became a victim of his own success. Once other engineers and inventors looked at it, they stroked their chins, reverse engineered it and altered the design. Many imitators came along and by the end of the century he was having a tough time. 

Does Gatling still have an influence on armaments development today?

It’s hard to say. Today, there are guns that use the basic Gatling configuration but shoot thousands of rounds a minute. It’s similar to the Wright Brothers. We don’t ride those kinds of planes anymore, but the basic idea of how an airplane works, which is what the Wright Brothers contributed, is still there. And that’s true with Gatling’s innovation.

Why is Gatling—the man—largely forgotten today when he was so famous in his own time?

This is the core of my book. It’s a theory of mine—and I may be wrong—but I think Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of firearms and military might. We like the idea that America succeeds because of the force of our ideas, and we like the idea that we are spreading democracy throughout the world. We are, but very often we are doing it at the point of a gun. In the book I refer to it as a grubby, uncomfortable truth. There is this terrible ambivalence we have—and always have had—about military might. We are not a nation that likes to go to war. We only do it when we have to. But when we feel we have to we really want to win. 

What kind of feedback have you received from gun enthusiasts? 

Some of the gun historians I’ve talked to like the book and understand what I’m trying to do. Some of them wish the book was a little more about the gun. But I’m only interested in the gun insofar as it reflects American values in American history—looking at the cultural history of 19th century America through the prism of this gun that really changed the world. 

I do wish we could broaden out our conversation about guns and firearms history and not make it all about arguments about the Second Amendment. To me it’s much more interesting to look at the role firearms have played and how they reflect our values and our sense of ourselves in the world and our sense of what it means to be a nation. 

Is there any place one can go see a Gatling gun today? 

Yes, a couple different places. There is one at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. There is one at West Point [at the United States Military Academy]. And there is one in Gatling’s hometown [Murfreesboro, North Carolina] at the William Rea Museum. There are also a few in museums out west and some in private collectors’ hands. But at the Smithsonian, West Point and Murfreesboro you can walk right up and touch one.

Is there any place where you can fire one? 

I fired one a couple different times. At gun shows there are collectors that have working Gatling guns. There are also machine gun shoots—one in Maine, and one twice a year [at the Knob Creek Gun Range] in Westpoint, Kentucky. 

What is it like to fire a Gatling gun? 

It’s quite thrilling. But it takes a lot of physical strength. So for me it was very labored. But you get this feeling of tremendous power. 

Do you believe your book has the potential to rehabilitate Gatling’s reputation? 

If only. I think he deserves far better. History, of course, is full of people who haven’t gotten their just due. But if the ultimate result of this is that Richard Jordan Gatling is restored to the history books as the great mechanical genius he was, then I’ll be very happy.

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