Gatling Glory: The First Machine Gun

Anirban Ray Choudhury Feb 20, 2019
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This write-up aims at giving a brief overview of the development of the first Machine Gun.
Richard J Gatling, a wealthy planter's son, was obsessed with rotating devices. At the age of seventeen, he devised a new design for a ship's screw propeller; in 1839 he created an automated seed-sower, and by 1861 he had built the ultimate bullet-spewer - the machine gun. The last invention would bring him unheralded wealth in the years to come.
Like most first models, the 1862 model of the Gatling Gun (so named after the inventor) had a simple but effective design consisting of six barrels locked onto a central firing cylinder. The lock cylinder was drilled with holes corresponding to the barrels, and was encased and joined to the frame of the gun.
A grooved carrier and a spiral cam-shaft completed the ensemble.
The cam imparted a reciprocating motion to the locks when the gun rotated. In the later models (post 1872), the cartridges were held in a hopper, which dropped them into the grooves of the carrier, and as shots were fired, the inertia of the cam drew back the lock to extract the shell.
Using .58 Caliber bullets, the first machine gun was able to attain an unheard of firepower in those days, shooting up to 200 rounds per minute, while the later models could fire up to 1200 rounds to the minute.
The mid-seventies was probably the classic period in the history of the Gun, when Richard Gatling shifted base to Hartford, Connecticut, for the guns to be manufactured by the Colt Armory.
A long and fruitful association began between The Gatling Gun Company and the Colt Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company with the latter aiding the former in making rapid technological advancements, and by the late eighteen hundred nineties The Gatling Gun Company had been absorbed by Colt.
The initial models of the Gatling Gun were mounted on a fixed carriage, and the first flexible mount was introduced only with the 1879 model, which featured a ten-barrel fully encased gun firing .45 Caliber bullets.
In 1881 another improvement was made to the weapon to accommodate the Bruce Feeder.
Named after its inventor L.F. Bruce, the Bruce feeder enabled the gun to load directly from 20 round cardboard cartons into a dual slot vertical bar, with gravity forcing a full slot over the feed hopper as one slot emptied, thereby ensuring a continuous firing system.
The Bruce feeder was the most popular feeding mechanism with the US Army owing to its simplicity, and while many other feeders were experimented within the various models, the Bruce Feeder continued to be the feeder of choice.
The M1895 model, which was designed to use by the then US Army standard .30 Caliber bullets, was the first Gatling to be painted, and went on to become tremendously popular with the American forces after its great success at the Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War.
" ...so successfully subdued the Spanish fire that from that time to the capture of the practically impregnable position was only eight-and-one-half minutes. The expenditure of ammunition during this time, in which a continuous fire was kept up from three guns, was 6,000 rounds per gun..." ~John Henry Parker, Commander, Gatling Gun Detachment, Vth Corps.
However, in the twentieth century, rapid advancements were seen in the development of automatic firing weapons with the development of the recoil blow back concept, and the Gatling Gun gradually lost ground to the more advanced, fully automatic machine guns.
In 1911, the US Army declared the weapon obsolete. But the weapon was to return, and this time it returned from the skies, reincarnated as the M61 Vulcan - a hydraulically driven, six barreled gun with a firepower of 6000 rounds per minute.
Mounted on aircraft like the F-16, the F-22 fighters and the B-58 bomber, it is an ideal weapon for short range air-to-air combat and for strafing ground based targets.
Richard Gatling died in 1903. Forty years later, in 1943, the US government launched a destroyer christened as the USS Gatling to commemorate the inventor of the first Machine Gun.
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