The Industrial Revolution and Machine-Gun Prototypes

The fundamental changes, including manufacturing and financial practices, that came about during the Industrial Revolution greatly speeded machine-gun development. The first patent using the term “machine gun” was issued in the United States in 1829 to Samuel L. Farries of Middletown, Ohio. This grant seems to imply that the term was to be assigned to any mechanically operated weapon of rifle caliber and above, regardless of whether the energy necessary for sustained fire was derived mechanically or from some other source of power. As it turned out, however, the weapons of the nineteenth century would all be manually operated. Because it was always necessary for a gunner to aim the weapon, there seemed to be no reason why he should not also furnish the power to feed and fire the gun. The challenge for inventors was how to devise a mechanism to make that possible.

In the 1850s, Sir James S. Lillie of London attempted to combine both the multibarrel and the revolving chamber systems. He arranged 12 barrels in two rows. Each had a cylinder, as with a revolver, behind it. A hand crank tripped the hammers of each unit, either simultaneously to produce a 12-barrel barrage of fire, or consecutively to produce a continuous ripple of fire from each barrel in turn. The problem with Lillie’s gun was that it took a long time to reload. Thus it had little appeal for the military and the only specimen ever made now resides in the Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich in London.

In the United States, other inventors continued to work on perfecting a multifire weapon. Improvements to percussion caps and subsequent developments in the evolution of the cartridge paved the way for new advances. Ezra Ripley, of Troy, New York, took advantage of the paper cartridge developed by Samuel Colt and the Ely brothers of England to patent a hand-cranked machine gun. Ripley achieved sustained volley fire by a compact firing mechanism that allows the gunner to fire one shot, or the whole volley, with a quick turn of the handle. The weapon consisted of a series of barrels grouped around a central axis. The breech lock, made in the shape of a revolving cylinder, was loaded with the conventional paper cartridges of the time. The breech was then locked into place by securing the operating handle. This aligned the chambers containing the cartridges with the rear of the barrels. With a turn of the handle, the firing pin was cocked and released, firing the weapon. Once the weapon was fired, the gunner then pulled the firing assembly rearward, removed the empty cartridges and reloaded the empty chambers. As preloaded cylinders were made available, a single operator was able to produce more sustained fire than a company of men using the standard muzzle-loading musket of the day. However, U. S. military observers evaluating Ripley’s prototype expressed serious doubts about overheating of the barrels and ammunition resupply. In the end, the U. S. Army, which ordered little more than conventional arms like muskets and cannons during this period, was not interested in Ripley’s invention. Nevertheless, it was a promising weapon that had many features that greatly influenced machine-gun design for years.

Some of the difficulties incurred by arms inventors in marketing their ideas were reduced with the onset of the U. S. Civil War; the needs of industrialized warfare spurred weapons inventors and added new impetus to the development of volley-fire weapons and ultimately the mechanical machine gun. One of the most effective of the volley-fire weapons during the Civil War was the Billinghurst-Requa battery gun, built in late 1861 by the Billinghurst Company of Rochester, New York. Designed by Joseph Requa of Rochester, this weapon was yet another revival of the fourteenth-century ribauldequin brought up to date. The weapon consisted of 25 rifle barrels mounted side-by-side on a light wheeled carriage. The barrels were each loaded with a brass cartridge containing gunpowder and a bullet and having a hole in the base. A steel block closed all 25 breeches and was perforated to allow the flash from a single cap, which was placed on a nipple on the iron frame and fired by a hammer, to pass through and ignite the 25 cartridges in a ragged volley, after which the 25 barrels had to be emptied of the spent cartridges by hand and reloaded before the gun could fire again. It produced a blast of fire that could cut down a charging enemy.

The Billinghurst-Requa battery gun, although primitive by later standards, had a few unusual features that merit mention. Requa had solved the inevitable long pause for reloading by making his weapon a breechloader. The clip-loading feature and quick means of locking and unlocking the bolt allowed for a decent rate of fire. The gun was demonstrated in New York shortly before the Civil War broke out, and several were purchased by the Union and the Confederacy. They were used to protect vulnerable points, notably bridges and similar places where an enemy attack could be channeled into a narrow space and a sudden blast of fire delivered. As a result, these weapons became known as bridge guns. Despite its potential, the battery gun had its limitations and did not represent a great leap forward in rapid-fire technology. Additionally, there were questions about how such guns would best be used on the battlefield. The gun was demonstrated for the Ordnance Select Committee in London in 1863, and the observers attending were less than impressed. The committee thought that the gun could not be a substitute for any existing field guns and questioned its utility for the infantry. Ian V. Hogg, a modern expert on weapons and their development, maintains that “this short report pinpoints the greatest problem facing the early development of machine guns: how were they to be used?”1 Most military observers saw them as some sort of artillery weapon and contended that they should be handled in the field in the same manner, that is, setting up some distance from the enemy to take him under fire. According to Hogg, “It was this ques tion of method of employment that was to be the greatest brake on the early development” of the machine gun. Very few observers realized the potential of these weapons and how they would change the nature of armed combat.

A different approach during the Civil War was taken by Wilson Ager (sometimes spelled Agar). His invention was called the Coffee Mill because the ammunition was fed into the top through a funnel-shaped hopper resembling an old-time coffee grinder. Ager’s gun, also known as the Union Repeating Gun, was unique in that it had only one barrel. A number of steel tubes, into which powder and a bullet were loaded, provided the firepower; on the end of each tube was a nipple on to which a percussion cap was placed. The tubes were then dropped into the hopper and gravity-fed one at a time by rotating the crank. This pushed the first tube from the hopper into the chamber of the barrel, locked the breech block behind it, and then dropped a hammer onto the cap and fired the caliber .58 MiniĆ©-type bullet out of the barrel. Continuous rotation of the crank withdrew the empty tube and ejected it, then fed the next tube in, and so on. The gunner’s mate had the job of picking up the empty tubes and reloading them as fast as he could, dropping them back into the hopper.

The gun, which Ager described as “An Army in Six Feet Square,” worked reasonably well, particularly for its day. The inventor claimed that the weapon could fire 100 shots per minute. This was probably an exaggeration, and that claim was no doubt received with great skepticism. This response was probably well-founded, because 100 shots per minute meant exploding a pound or so of gunpowder every minute. In truth, the gun probably could not have withstood the heat generated. (The problem of heat buildup in the barrel would be one of the recurring difficulties that had to be overcome in the development of an effective machine gun.) Nevertheless, Ager conducted a demonstration firing for President Abraham Lincoln, who was so impressed with the weapon that he authorized the purchase of 10 units on the spot. Eventually Ager sold more than fifty Coffee Mills to the Union Army. Generally, they proved to be unreliable in combat and were never employed en masse. According to one reference, they were incorporated into the defenses of Washington and were only occasionally fired at Confederate positions along the Potomac River. 3 They were usually relegated to bridge duty, like the Requa. In the end, the Coffee Mill was not adopted in great numbers because contemporary authorities, failing to see its great potential, condemned it as requiring too much ammunition ever to be practical.

Captain D. R. Williams of the Confederate Army invented a mechanical gun that was also used during the Civil War. This weapon, a 1-pounder with a bore of 1.57 inches and a 4-foot barrel, was mounted on a mountain howitzer-style horse-drawn limber. This weapon was really a cross between a machine gun and a light repeating cannon. The firing mechanism was operated by a hand crank located on the right side. The weapon used a self-consuming paper cartridge and was capable of 65 shots per minute. It was fairly reliable but had a tendency to overheat when fired for extended periods. The Williams gun was first employed on 3 May 1862 at the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia. Some historians maintain that this was the first machine gun to be used in battle, but weapons historian Ian V. Hogg disputes this claim, arguing that the Williams gun cannot be classed as a true machine gun, since it was necessary to put each round into the feedway by hand. The Williams, according to Hogg, “was simply a quick-firing breech-loader, operated by a hand crank.” Nevertheless, these weapons were used by the Confederacy for the rest of the Civil War with some success.

Another American, General O. Vandenberg, also invented a new weapon, a volley gun designed for “projecting a group or cluster of shot.” This weapon employed 85 to 451 barrels, depending on the size of the projectile for which it was designed. Each barrel was loaded with a bullet and then the breech was closed. When the operator manipulated a lever, measured charges of powder were dropped simultaneously into each chamber. The method of ignition was percussion: a centrally located charge ignited the whole volley simultaneously. With so many barrels, the weapon was extremely heavy. Vandenberg built the first guns in England and tried to market them there. The British showed some interest in it for use aboard ships but believed that it had little potential as a land weapon due to its weight. Vandenberg, at the outbreak of the Civil War, made many attempts to sell the weapon to the U. S. government. He even gave three weapons to the secretary of war for testing. After very comprehensive field trials, it was found that it took nine hours for one man to clean the bore and chambers of the weapon adequately after firing. This maintenance problem and the weight issue doomed the weapon, and it was deemed unacceptable for Union service. Several of these guns were used by Confederate forces, but they were stamped with the name of the British manu facturing company, Robinson and Cottam. There is a record of one being used in the defense of Petersburg, Virginia.

The Gatling Gun

The most famous and successful of the mechanical machine guns was invented by Richard Jordan Gatling. Rather than practice medicine after completing medical school, Gatling spent his life inventing things, including a steam plow, a mechanical rice planter, and a hemp breaker. However, it was in the area of repeating arms that Gatling made his name. In 1861, taking advantage of the progress that had been made in machine tooling, he combined the best principles of the Ager and Ripley guns (although he denied that he had been influenced by either weapon), overcoming their more objectionable features. Because of his successful designs, Gatling has generally been credited with being the progenitor of the modern mechanical machine gun.

Gatling was fully aware of the problems with heat buildup from multiple explosions in a rapidly firing weapon. To overcome this, he designed the weapon with six barrels that would be fired in turn. This ensured that with a total potential fire rate of 600 rounds per minute, each barrel would only fire 100, allowing them to cool down.

The first Gatling gun, patented in November 1862, consisted of six barrels mounted around a central axis in a revolving frame with a hopper-shaped steel container similar to the Ager. The barrels were cranked by hand. The weapon used small steel cylinders that contained a percussion cap on the end, the bullet, and paper cartridges for the charge. It was loaded by placing the steel cylinders into the hopper above the gun, which fed the rounds into the breech by gravity. As the handle was turned, the six barrels and the breech mechanism revolve, each barrel having a bolt and a firing pin controlled by a shaped groove in the casing around the breech. As the breech revolved, the bolts were opened and closed and the firing pin released from the action of studs running in the groove. When any barrel was at the topmost point of revolution, the breech bolt was fully open and as it passed beneath the hopper a loaded cylinder was dropped into the feeder. As the barrel continued to revolve, the bolt was closed, leaving the firing pin cocked; as the barrel revolved to the bottommost point, the firing pin was released and the barrel fired. Further revolution caused the bolt to open and the empty case to be ejected, just in time for the barrel to reach the top again with the bolt open, ready to collect its next cartridge and casing.

Gatling made arrangements for six weapons to be manufactured for an official test by the Union Army. Unfortunately, the factory in which the guns were being made was destroyed by fire, and the guns and all his drawings were lost. The inventor was not deterred, however, and he was able to raise enough money to manufacture 12 new guns. This time he did away with the metal cylinders, using rim-fire cartridges instead. This made the newer weapon easier to load and more reliable. Gatling boasted that the gun could be fired at the rate of 200 shots per minute.

Despite Gatling’s claims, which were to be borne out by subsequent events, the Union Army failed to adopt the gun for two reasons. First, the army’s chief of ordnance, Colonel John W. Ripley (later brigadier general), strongly resisted any move away from standard-issue weapons. The other reason was suspicion that Gatling’s sympathies lay with the South. Although he had located his factory in Cincinnati, Ohio, Gatling had been born in North Carolina, which had joined the Confederacy. Therefore, to many among the Union leadership, his politics and sympathies were suspect. Gatling even appealed directly to President Lincoln, pointing out that his deadly invention was “providential, to be used as a means in crushing the rebellion.” Despite Gatling’s offer to help the North win the war, many in the Union high command felt there was something odd about a Southerner offering a new gun to the Union and thus refused to even consider Gatling’s invention. The only use of the Gatling gun during the Civil War occurred when General Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts personally purchased 12 guns for $1,000 each and later put them to good use against Confederate troops besieged at Petersburg, Virginia.

In 1864, Gatling completely redesigned the gun so that each barrel was formed with its own chamber, thus doing away with the separate cylinder and its attendant gas-leak problem. The gun now fed center-fire cartridges from a magazine on top. The cartridges were gradually fed into the chamber by cams as the barrels revolved, then fired at the bottom position, and were extracted and ejected during the upward movement. As the barrel reached the top it was empty and ready to take in the next round. The great advantage of this system was that it divided the mechanical work among six barrels so that all the machinery operated at a sensible speed. By this time, Gatling had refined the gun’s design considerably, increasing the rate of fire to 300 rounds per minute and improving reliability.

Gatling intensified efforts to sell the gun to the U. S. government. He published a publicity broadsheet in 1865 that informed the world that his gun bore “the same relationship to other firearms that McCormack’s Reaper does to the sickle, or the sewing machine to the common needle. It will no doubt be the means of producing a great revolution in the art of warfare from the fact that a few men can perform the work of a regiment.” At Gatling’s urging, the U. S. Army finally agreed later that year to conduct a test. Pleased with the results, the Army formally adopted the Gatling gun in 1866, ordering 50 of 1-inch caliber (with six barrels) and 50 of 0.50-inch caliber (with 10 barrels). Gatling entered a contract with Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Company of Hartford, Connecticut, to manufacture the guns for delivery in 1867. Gatling was so pleased with this arrangement that for as long as the U. S. government used the Gatling gun, it was manufactured by Colt.

Even though the U. S. Army had adopted the Gatling gun, there were two schools of thought among military men, both in the United States and elsewhere, about the best way to use it. One believed they should be used as artillery fire support; the other advocated its use for defending bridges and for street defense. Neither side recognized its true potential was as an infantry support weapon. This would be a recurring theme within the world’s armies regarding the Gatling gun and subsequent machine guns, as doctrine and tactics failed to keep pace with technological advances.

With the Civil War over and the arms embargo enacted during the war lifted, Gatling and the Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Company began marketing the weapon overseas, aggressively entering arms competitions throughout Europe. In each case, when a properly designed cartridge was used, the Gatling gun out-shot every competing design. In Great Britain, some military leaders had recommended the adoption of the machine gun, but cost considerations led Parliament to refuse to appropriate funding to develop such weapons. Nevertheless, the British Army tested Gatling’s weapon at Woolwich in 1870 in competition with the Montigny Mitrailleuse, a 12- pounder breechloader firing shrapnel, a 9-pounder muzzleloader firing shrapnel, six soldiers firing Martini-Henry rifles, and six soldiers firing Snider rifles. The Gatling fired 492 pounds of ammunition and obtained 2,803 hits on various targets; the Montigny 472 pounds for 708 hits; the 12-pounder 1,232 for 2,286 hits; and the 9-pounder 1,013 pounds for 2,207 hits. The British were impressed with the Gatling’s accuracy, its economy, and the fact that in timed fire it got off 1,925 rounds in 2.5 minutes. The test went so well that the British adopted the Gatling in caliber .42 for the Army and caliber .65 for the Royal Navy.

Great Britain became one of the first countries not only to recognize the utility of the Gatling gun but also to put it into action. After some initial difficulties with the new weapon during the Ashanti campaign of 1873 in the territory that is now Ghana, West Africa, the British Army wholeheartedly endorsed it. Events elsewhere in Africa contributed toward the acceptance of the Gatling gun. In South Africa on 22-23 January 1879, the British had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Zulus under Cetshwayo at Isandlwana. In retribution for this defeat, a force of 4,000 infantrymen and 1,000 cavalry under the command of Lord Chelmsford set out to punish the Zulus. On July 4, the British, armed with two Gatling guns, engaged the Zulu warriors at Ulundi. The Gatlings wrought havoc among the Zulus, who had never gone up against such devastating fire. When the battle was over, more than 1,500 Zulus lay dead, most due to fire from the Gatlings. From then on the Gatling gun became a mainstay of British expeditionary forces in places like Egypt and the Sudan. Modern-day historian Robert L. O’Connell maintains that the Gatling and subsequently the Maxim machine gun were so popular with British colonial forces because “from an imperialist standpoint, the machine gun was nearly the perfect laborsaving device, enabling tiny forces of whites to mow down multitudes of brave but thoroughly outgunned native warriors.”

Over the next few years, most major armies in Europe, as well as those in Egypt, China, and much of South America, purchased Gatling’s weapon. The Russian government, preparing for war with Turkey, ordered 400 Gatlings. A Russian general was sent to the United States to oversee their manufacture and inspect the units before acceptance and shipping. With considerable cunning, he replaced the original Gatling nameplates with his own before the guns were shipped to Russia. Not surprisingly, some Russians claimed that Gatling had stolen important elements of the Gorloff model, which was called the Russian Mitrailleuse.

Despite Russian claims of originality, the Gatling was popular and saw use in many theaters. The inventor continued to work for 30 years on improvements and conducted many exhibitions throughout Europe and South America. Various models of varying calibers were introduced. By 1876, a five-barreled caliber .45 model was firing 700 rounds per minute and even up to 1,000 rounds in a short burst. By the mid-1880s, the armed forces of almost every nation in the world included Gatling guns among their inventories.

The Gatling was an effective design and remained in use until technology evolved such that a single barrel could be manufactured to withstand the heat and wear of multiple firings. After that advance, the Gatling disappeared. Before then, however, the Gatling saw long war service in countries, primarily as a instrument of colonialism, whereby small numbers of European soldiers could defeat large masses of native troops in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.

Despite the increased firepower of the Gatling, it had some limitations technically and tactically. The multiple barrels prevented excess heat buildup, but they were also a liability due to their weight. The weapon was best used in defensive situations because it was too heavy and unwieldy to use on the attack. For that reason, Gatlings were usually relegated to the artillery to be used in batteries, rather than distributed to infantry and cavalry units. There were a few instances where this was not the case. The Americans first used the Gatling against a foreign enemy during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Under the leadership of Captain John H. “Gatling Gun” Parker, a Gatling unit was organized and employed against the Spaniards at Santiago, Cuba. Parker took it upon himself to push the guns, mounted on carriages, forward on the flanks of the attacking force, keeping up with the advancing infantry and effectively clearing a path for them. This was the first use of the machine gun for mobile fire support in offensive combat. Parker quickly became one of the pioneers in the development of a tactical doctrine built around the use of the machine gun in support of the infantry.

The Gatling gun and its inventor were way ahead of their times. It was the only weapon in history to progress from black powder to smokeless powder, from hand power to fully automatic, and eventually to an electric-drive system that allowed 3,000 rounds per minute. All this was accomplished without any change to its basic operating principle before being abandoned as obsolete in 1911. It was also a design that would have applications in the modern era.