Category: Shotguns and Smoothbores
The Gatling gun is a famous early rapid-fire weapon and a forerunner of the modern machine gun invented by Richard Gatling. The machine gun was used extensively during the American Civil War in the 1860s by the Union Forces. This was the first time it was employed in combat. It was also used later in the Anglo-Zulu War, the Boshin War, and the Spanish-American War.
Richard Gatling designed the machine gun in 1861 and patented it on November 4, 1862. The American inventor wrote that he created the gun to reduce the number of armies and to show how futile war can be.
The gun's operation utilized a cyclic multi-barrel design which synchronized the firing and reloading sequence and facilitated cooling. Each barrel fired a single shot after reaching a certain point in the cycle, then ejected the spent cartridge and loaded a new round, while in the process allowing the barrel to cool. This configuration made it possible to achieve higher rates of fire without the barrel overheating.
Although the first Gatling gun was not fully automatic (a person had to crank it), its capability of firing continuously represented a huge leap in firearm technology. Its design inspired later developments such as the Maxim gun, which had improved features and capabilities. Maxim gun makes use of the recoil force of the fired projectiles to reload automatically.
Prior to the Gatling gun, the only weapons that were capable of mass-firing were the field canons firing canister and the French Reffye mitrailleuse (1870-1871). Although these weapons were capable of firing projectiles simultaneously, they needed to be reloaded after every discharge. The process was time-consuming and cumbersome, making them much less powerful in the battlefront. The Gatling gun represented a significant breakthrough as it offered a continuous and rapid rate of fire without having to open the breech to manually reload.
The original Gatling gun used multiple rotating barrels that were turned by a hand crank. They used a gravity feed system to fire loose metal cartridge ammunition from a hopper. The gravity feed reloading system allowed unskilled users to achieve a relatively high firing rate of 200 rounds per minute.
Design and Features
The Gatling gun had 6 to 10 barrels revolving around a central shaft, with each barrel having its own firing mechanism. The barrels of earlier models were stuffed with fibrous matting which could be soaked with water to cool them down. The matting-filled barrels were however eliminated in later models.
The machine guns initially used ammunitions that were steel cylinder primed with percussion caps and charged with black powder, because self-contained brass cartridges were not available at the time. The shells were fed into the breech through a stick magazine or hopper on top of the gun. The paper cartridge was replaced by brass cartridge similar to modern cartridges in 1860s.
By 1893, the Gatling gun was adapted to take the new 0.30 Army smokeless cartridge. The new Gatling guns featured 6 barrels, and were capable of a maximum firing rate of 800 to 900 rounds per minute. Richard Gatling later used examples of the electric powered M1893. Tests demonstrated the electric powered Gatling could manage up to 1,500 rpm.