The birth of rapid fire weapons

Infantry and cavalry charges with the odd barrage of artillery for good measure was the set system on the world’s battlefields for centuries. However in the mid-19th Century, an American inventor was about to change everything. We chat to Robert Fleming from the National Army Museum about the iconic Gatling gun.

The birth of rapid fire weapons

How and why was the Gatling gun invented?
The idea of being able to gain a tactical advantage through an increased volume and rate of fire has been around for a long time. Multiple shot weapons date from the later Medieval and renaissance periods, such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘ribauldequin’, a device that fired a shower of iron shot across a wide arc, but this was just an early version of many different multiple barrel guns and volley guns that were invented between the 14th and 16th centuries. The main difference between these early weapons and modern machine guns was the lack of an automatic loading and firing mechanism. This problem was resolved in 1862, when Dr Richard Jordan Gatling patented his design for a mechanised gun with six revolving barrels and a gravity-fed ammunition hopper that simultaneously reloaded and fired by turning a hand crank. Chambered for .58 calibre ammunition, it was capable of 150-200 rounds per minute, well in excess of even the best riflemen of the day. Furthermore, this could be achieved by a relatively unskilled operator, unlike a rifleman that required a degree of marksmanship skill.

Why did late-19th-century warfare need rapid-fire weapons?
When faced with large enemy forces of massed-rank infantry, the two most effective counter-measures are artillery and using a large number of your own infantry similarly deployed. The development of a weapon capable of firing a large volume of concentrated firepower could even the odds when outnumbered, or tip them in your favour in a balanced engagement. During the late-19th century, the major European powers entered a political period known as ‘new imperialism’, which was a second major phase of overseas colonial expansion particularly focused on Africa and Asia. Many of the armies they faced were traditional warrior societies and usually had numerical superiority through their warrior-service cultures, in which every able-bodied man, and sometimes woman, was available for war service. Therefore, a weapon that evened the odds against superior numbers through high rate of fire was highly desirable.

It was used sparingly in the American Civil War, how much did it contribute to the conflict?
The Gatling gun only first went into production in 1862, by which time the American Civil War (1861-65) had already been under way for a year. There were also existing rival designs for multiple-shot weapons such as the Ager and Billinghurst Requea Battery, most of which were generally unsatisfactory and turned people off Gatling’s design. Initially, commanders were reluctant to employ the new weapon, unsure of its reliability and tactical role on the battlefield. Early test models had been unreliable and Gatling struggled to convince the Union Army to buy it. However Union commander Benjamin Butler privately purchased 12 Gatling guns for $1,000 each. He first employed them in the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, personally supervising their successful use in defence against repeated Confederate attacks. This was its only major deployment in the civil war, so it really didn’t play much of a role in the outcome of the war. But a new model was produced in January 1865, and in 1866 the US Army officially adopted it, employing it to great effect in their westward campaigns against Native Americans.

The birth of rapid fire weapons

It was ported across the globe after the civil war, what made it so appealing to armies the world over?
With the approval of the US government, Gatling had established the reputation he needed to market his gun around the world. Imperial Russia was one of the first foreign powers to buy the weapon, importing 100 in the 1860s. The new 1865 model was much more reliable than the first version and was soon being produced under licence in Austria and the UK. It was also soon being produced in a ten-barrel version, chambered for .50-70, .65 or .75 calibre ammunition. It was also now capable of abput 400 rounds per minute of sustained fire, or even higher in short bursts. By the 1893 model, chambered for .30-40 calibre ammunition, the rate of fire was comfortably in the range of 800 rounds per minute. This was by far the most effective rapid-fire weapon in the world at the time. For example, the Maxim gun only fired at 500 rounds per minute.

Was it useful from the start or did the gunners have to get used to this new style of warfare?
The rate of fire and its ability to suppress enemy movement were quickly apparent, but there were difficulties. No established tactics, limited training and a lack of expertise in the maintenance of the weapons by its users often reduced their effectiveness. They developed a reputation for jamming, and this was most likely due to inexperienced operators just as much as mechanical failure. Many commanders facing a Gatling gun quickly realised it could be approached at an oblique angle to take advantage of its lack of traversing. The early models were also difficult to use because they were mounted on heavy artillery gun carriages and had limited ability to be manoeuvred into position and aimed, but this was improved with the development of a lighter carriage and a device to allow the gun to be traversed laterally over a 12-degree sweep.

Did it struggle in tricky terrain such as jungle and mountains passes?
The biggest difficulty in using the Gatling gun and its later models was its weight and bulk. It was cumbersome to manoeuvre when stationary and in fact the first model didn’t have any easy way of traversing laterally, so it was difficult just to aim, let alone move from place to place. It was usually mounted on a carriage, so if a horse or mule was available it could be transported. Otherwise, to move it required main force of its operators. So any terrain that wasn’t flat or had dense foliage was always going to provide problems. Despite that, the British Army did use it to great effect in difficult terrain, such as in the mountains during the Hazara campaign of 1888.

Are there any instances of it failing in its role?
There were many issues with ill-fitting ammunition, concealment of the operators and guns location, and improper use and maintenance. In the Sioux War (1876) Custer decided against using them because of the portability issues. During the Zulu War (1879), the British Army deployed a ‘battery’ of two Gatling guns, which inflicted heavy casualties on the Zulu impi but repeatedly jammed causing much frustration. During the Meiji Restoration, Japanese forces on both sides of the Boshin War (1868-69) and the Satsuma Rebellion (1877) employed Gatling guns, but a lack of experienced operators, jamming and portability again proved a hindrance to overall usefulness. Both sides also employed them during the Chilean-Peruvian war in the Pacific (1879-83), but they struggled to deploy them effectively in the mountainous terrain. Its main purpose was an infantry support weapon, and it just could not keep up with the forward progress of infantry on most occasions. By the end of the 19th century its weight and bulky carriage saw its use decline in favour of the cheaper and more portable Maxim gun, and even the US Army abandoned it in 1911.

The birth of rapid fire weapons
Inventor Dr Richard Jordan Gatling firmly believed his gun would help stop the bloodshed on the world’s battlefields. Sadly, he was very mistaken.

How did it change, or not change, warfare?
The rotating barrel system of the Gatling gun is highly effective, allowing the barrels time to cool between firing. This meant that not only did it offer a high rate and volume of fire power, but that fire could be sustained, almost indefinitely. This allowed suppression of enemy movement, preventing forward progress, and often completely halting attacks. It also provided a ‘force equaliser’ against superior numbers. When used on the defence it was almost impossible to advance towards. This started the move towards the advantage being with the defender, which eventually led to the trench deadlock of the Western Front. But despite the genius of its design, it fell into disuse for many years in the shadow of the Maxim gun and its successors. It wasn’t until the advent of the jet fighter age, and proposals that rotating automatic cannons might provide a solution for hitting fast-moving fighter jets during aerial combat, that the Gatling-inspired rotary cannon was born. Modern Gatling guns, or ‘rotary cannons’, are usually electrically, hydraulically or pneumatically driven, making them properly automatic unlike the original.

How can its influence be seen in modern warfare?
General Electric’s Vulcan Gun designed in 1949 used an an electrically driven motor and was capable of firing 2,500 rounds of .60 calibre ammunition. The M61 Vulcan, introduced ten years later in 1959, was chambered for 20mm ammunition and pushed the rate of fire up to 6,000 rounds per minute, becoming the principle cannon of US and NATO fighter aircraft for more than 50 years. A smaller 7.62mm M134 Minigun was also developed for attack helicopters. In 1980, General Dynamics developed the Phalanx CIWS (Close In Weapon System), which is a radar-guided 20mm ship-mounted Gatling gun designed to shoot down anti-ship missiles with a rate of fire of 4,500 rounds per minute and a range of 3.6 kilometres (2.2 miles). Other modern rotary cannons based on the Gatling design include the GAU-8 Avenger, the principle weapon of the A-10 Warthog tank-killer plane, the 50 calibre GAU-19 Heavy Machinegun, sometimes mounted on Humvees or Light Strike Vehicles, and the Russian-designed Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-6-23 and GSh-6-30, both of which are gas powered and capable of about 9-10,000 rounds per minute.

The birth of rapid fire weapons
The success of the Gatling gun paved the way for the first machine guns such as the Maxim gun.
(This is also one of our favourite pictures of all time)

Robert Fleming is a curator at the Department of Access and Outreach at the National Army Museum

For more on the history of weapons, check out History of War at Issue 17 out now!

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