One of the things that has amazed me the most about the history of warfare, is how many of the most fearsome weapons were created by men who felt their inventions would end war. Alfred Noble and his work with gunpowder and explosives, Hiram Maxim’s machine gun, and before them all, Richard Jordan Gatling and his terrible marvel, the gun that bore his name.
“It occurs to me,” Gatling wrote to a friend in 1877, “that if I could invent a machine- a gun – which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a great extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished.”
Depending on the model and the caliber, a Gatling could fire 150 to 700 rounds a minute. And by the way, since a Gatling required a person to crank the handle- technically, it’s not a machine gun.
The Gatling saw limited use in the American Civil War. It was common practice then, Union commanders privately purchased the Gatlings for their troops. Although a Gatling cost a huge sum of $1500, $35,000 in today’s currency, it was a fraction of the cost of fielding a full regiment of men; and the Gatling was worth at least a regiment.
The most famous use of Gatling guns was in the Spanish American campaign at the end of the 19th century, most notably the Rough Riders charge up San Juan Hill. Teddy Roosevelt, an enthusiastic supporter of the Gatling gun, described the first use this way: “Now suddenly smote our ears a peculiar drumming sound. One or two of the men cried out, ‘the Spanish machine guns!’ But after listening a moment, I leaped to my feet and called ‘it’s the Gatlings, men! It’s our Gatlings!’ Immediately, the troops began to cheer lustily, for the sound was most inspiring.”
By the end of the Gilded Age and the dawn of a new century, the Gatling had already been superseded by the first true machine gun, the Maxim. But, the Gatling had brought warfare to a new and more horrific level.
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