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Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel


It may seem odd that the Gatling gun, forerunner of the machine gun, was invented by a doctor, but so it was. Dr. Richard J. Gatling invented the gun in 1861. He received a patent on this date in 1862. He created the new weapon to reduce the size of armies, reasoning that one gunner could do the work of many soldiers. Gatling thought that combat deaths and injuries would likewise be reduced.

The original Gatling gun was a repeating weapon that used multiple rotating barrels. It wasn’t a true automatic weapon because the operator had to turn a crank. The gun could fire 200 rounds per minute which was an astonishing rate of fire for the time. It was first used in the Civil War. Two of the guns were employed at Petersburg. The first guns were somewhat fragile and prone to breakdowns, but they could fire sustained bursts with less overheating than other early versions of machine guns.

The gun was easily transplanted to the Indian Wars on the Great Plains. Most western garrisons had Gatling guns. They were used with wheeled carriages and could be moved by horsepower. This limited the use of the gun in Eastern forested areas, but it was more easily used on the wide open Plains.

Gatling guns were used against Native Americans in Oklahoma, Idaho, and during the Red River War in Texas. Heavy and cumbersome to transport, Garrisons tended to use Gatling guns as defensive weapons on fort ramparts rather than taking them on expeditions. It is curious why they weren’t more widely used, since they were no more difficult to move than artillery. Expeditions were routinely accompanied by mountain howitzers. Perhaps the reluctance stemmed from the simple fact that the Gatling gun was new, and officers were not sure how to use it effectively.

When General Custer led his troops out of Fort Lincoln in North Dakota to his final action at the Little Big Horn, he left Gatling guns behind. He believed the guns would slow him down. He also thought that using such a weapon would cause him to lose face with the Native Americans. This may seem foolish in hindsight, but Custer was so outnumbered that it’s questionable if one Gatling gun would have changed the outcome.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

History Today. "http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/gatling-gun-patented" http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/gatling-gun-patented Accessed 22 August, 2014.

History of War. "http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_gattling.html" http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_gattling.html Accessed 22 August, 2014

Montana Pioneer. "http://www.mtpioneer.com/2013-March-The%20Gatling-Guns-Fire-Power.html" http://www.mtpioneer.com/2013-March-The%20Gatling-Guns-Fire-Power.html Accessed 22 August, 2014