An Invention of No Ordinary Character

Richard J. Gatling was seeking business. In the meticulous penmanship of a man born to a land-owning Southern family, he began a letter to President Abraham Lincoln.

It was February 18, 1864, late in the American Civil War and an extraordinary period in the evolution of firearms: dawn in the age of the machine gun and yet a time when officers still roamed battlefields with swords. At forty-five, Gatling was a medical-school graduate who had never practiced medicine, opting instead to turn his stern father’s sideline as an inventor into a career. For twenty years he had mainly designed agricultural devices. Dr. Gatling, as he liked to be called, came from a North Carolina family that owned as many as twenty slaves. But he had moved north to Indiana for business and marriage, and when the war began in 1861 he did not align himself with the secessionists who formed the Confederacy. He knew men on both sides. Far from his place of birth and away from the battlefields, he had taken to viewing the contents of the caskets returning to the railroad depot in Indianapolis. Inside were the remains of Union soldiers, many felled by trauma but most by infection or disease. Seeing these gruesome sights, Gatling shifted attention from farm devices to firearms, and to the ambition of designing a rapid-fire weapon, a pursuit that since the fourteenth century had attracted and eluded gunsmiths around the world. “I witnessed almost daily the departure of troops to the front and the return of the wounded, sick and dead,” he wrote. “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine—a gun—that would 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.”

Gatling did not fit any caricature of an arms profiteer. By the available accounts, he carried himself as a neat and finely dressed gentleman. He was kindhearted to his family and associates, soft-spoken at home, and self-conscious enough that he wore a beard to hide the smallpox scars that peppered his face. He made for a curious figure: an earnest and competitive showboat when promoting his weapon, but restrained and modest on the subject of himself. He was, his son-in-law said, “an exception to the rule that no man is great to his valet.” One interviewer noted that he professed to feel “that if he could invent a gun which would do the work of 100 men, the other ninety and nine could remain at home and be saved to the country.” He repeated this point throughout his life, explaining a sentiment that he insisted rose from seeing firsthand the ruined remains of young men lost in a fratricidal war. His records make clear that he was driven by profits. He never ceased claiming that compassion urged him on at the start.

Gatling was neither a military nor a social visionary. But he was a gifted tinkerer and an unrelenting salesman, and he found good help. His plans proceeded swiftly. Though there is no record of his having prior experience with weapon design, by late 1862, after viewing rival guns, drawing on his knowledge of agricultural machinery, and enlisting the mechanical assistance of Otis Frink, a local machinist, he had received a patent for a prototype he called the “battery gun.” “The object of this invention,” he told the U.S. Patent Office, “is to obtain a simple, compact, durable, and efficient firearm for war purposes, to be used either in attack or defence, one that is light when compared with ordinary field artillery, that is easily transported, that may be rapidly fired, and that can be operated by few men.”

Gatling’s battery gun, while imperfect in its early forms, was a breakthrough in a field that had frustrated everyone who had tried before. Since medieval times, the pursuit of a single weapon that could mass musket fire had confounded generations of military-minded gunsmiths and engineers. Gunsmiths had long ago learned to place barrels side by side on frames to create firearms capable of discharging projectiles in rapid succession. These unwieldy devices, known as volley guns, were capable in theory of blasting a hole in a line of advancing soldiers. They had limitations in practice, among them slow reload times and difficulties in adjusting fire toward moving targets and their flanks. Ammunition was a problem, too, as was the poor state of metallurgy, although this did not discourage everyone, and the lethal possibilities of a machine that could concentrate gunfire attracted would-be inventors of many stripes. One of the few highly detailed accounts of the early models suggests an inauspicious start. In 1835, Giuseppe Fieschi, a Corsican, rented an apartment on Boulevard du Temple in Paris. In a room overlooking the street he secretly constructed a frame of thick oak posts and attached twenty-five rifle barrels, all in a space of roughly a meter square. Each barrel was packed with multiple musket balls and a heavy charge of powder, then aligned to aim together at a point on the street below. Fieschi waited. On July 28, his intended victim appeared: King Louis-Philippe. Fieschi fired his makeshift device, and a volley flew from the apartment window and slammed into the king’s entourage. In the technical sense, the “infernal machine,” as his device came to be known in Europe, was both a success and a failure. It had a terrible effect. A piece of lead grazed Louis-Philippe’s skull, just above his face, and others cut down his company, killing eighteen people. But an examination of the gun later suggested that while it worked well enough as a tool for assassination or terror, it was hardly ready for the battlefield. Four barrels had failed to fire. Four others had ruptured. Two of these had exploded, scattering lead inside the assassin’s rented room and gravely injuring Fieschi, who was captured and saved from his injuries by the French authorities, to be executed later by guillotine.

Several hundred years of near stagnation in rapid-fire design, coupled with such mishaps, did not make machine guns an attractive idea to investors or customers alike. There was reason as well for potential purchasers to suspect nonsense in the claims of the movement’s dreamers, whose folly preceded Fieschi. In 1718, James Puckle, of London, had received an English patent for a rapid-fire flintlock that he proposed to manufacture in two forms: one for firing round balls at Christians, and another for firing square blocks at Muslims. The weapon, he wrote, was for “defending King George, Your country and Lawes, to defending yourselves and Protestant cause.” Puckle was nearly two centuries ahead of the machine-gun age. His proposal to subject Muslims to what he expected to be the crueler effects of square projectiles in some ways foreshadowed the punishing ways.

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