On May 17, 1876, Lt. Col. (former Brevet Major General) George Armstrong Custer left Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, Dakota Territory, with about 925 officers and men of the 7th United States Cavalry. Custer and most of his complement never returned.
Gen. Phil Sheridan's orders were for Custer to march westward and engage any Indians found off Agency lands or with hunting bands. Military intelligence about Indian numbers was sparse and often inaccurate. Heavy rains had drenched western Dakota and eastern Montana. Campaigning was not easy.
Custer traveled without the inconvenience of the two, three, or four — the quantity varies by source — Gatling guns available to him. These were left behind at Fort Abraham Lincoln. The absence of any of these guns at the Little Big Horn engagement may have substantially affected its outcome.
Was Custer justified in leaving the Gatlings at Fort Abraham Lincoln? After the fact, probably not. But justification cannot be looked at from this perspective.
There have been, obviously, two schools of thought on the matter of the absent Gatlings. One centers around Custer's character and previous behavior. Was Custer a vainglorious ass who would allow nothing to overshadow his presumed talents as a leader? Did he consider machine guns as indecent support for a soldier of honor?
Custer argued at the time that Gatlings inhibited his column's ease of transport. Earlier, Custer had had problems when his Gatlings could not keep up with the rest of his column. Furthermore, Gatlings occasionally tipped over on rough terrain, as did artillery pieces.
On the other hand, there is evidence that Custer had harnesses which allowed the Gatlings to be disassembled and stowed on pack mules or horses which were more difficult to tip over on the trail. If the animals were healthy and strong they should be able to keep up with the other elements in the column.
Most officers did not really understand how to use machine guns as anything other than artillery pieces. They could not comprehend Gatlings as support in cavalry or infantry engagements.
Colonel, later Major General, Nelson Miles was generally against Gatlings because their range was no better than that of a rifle and the bullets were so small that one could not tell where they struck. This was clearly an example of the artillery attitude.
Col. Henry Hunt, former Major General and Chief of Artillery for the Army of the Potomac, blamed cavalrymen for not maintaining their Gatlings properly. They were too lazy and/or untrained to keep the guns clear of black powder residue. Failure to perform this task allowed the Gatlings to overheat and jam.
Hunt further contended that the cavalry used horses and mules near retirement for transport of the Gatlings and the aged animals could not keep up with their younger and stronger colleagues. Give the men training and the animals youthfulness and most of the Gatling’s problems would be solved. If the men ever had been artillerymen it would be a bonus. Such were Colonel Hunt’s views.
A short description of the parts and workings of a Gatling guns is now in order. Its six to ten barrels were set around a central axis and to the rear was a loading and firing mechanism operated by a crank on the side of the gun.
The metal cartridges were placed in a hopper or fed into a slot on the top of the gun or were contained in a drum attached to the housing above the firing mechanism. It all depended upon year and model.
When the crank was turned the barrels and breech mechanism rotated around the axis. Each barrel had a bolt and firing pin controlled by a cam groove in the breech casing. When the unit revolved, projections in the bolts, riding in the groove, caused the bolts to open and close in the barrel breeches. Cartridges were injected and ejected during the process.
The gun’s inventor, Richard J. Gatling, was born in Hertford County, North Carolina, in 1818 but removed himself to Indiana in 1848. As a result there were those during the Civil War who questioned his loyalty to the Union. He was trained as a physician but never maintained a civil practice. In his professional career he was similar to Arthur Conan Doyle.
Gatling took out patents for his first gun in 1862, but he was never able to convince the U.S. Ordnance Department of its merit despite the support of the influential Governor of Indiana, O.P. Morton. Apparently Gatling’s actions and personality did not endear him to all persons.
William Hallihan in his work, Misfire, noted that Gatling “… seems to have been an amalgam of circus impresario, snake oil shill, mechanical genius, and scoundrel.”
Despite his possible character flaws, Gatling did persuade Gen. Ben Butler, whom some said had like character flaws, to buy 12 guns mounted on carriages for $12,000 complete with 12,000 rounds of ammunition. His purchase was put to good use during the Union siege of Petersburg, Va.
In 1866, after trials at Frankford Arsenal and Fort Monroe, Virginia, the Army officially adopted the Gatling gun. It purchased 50 guns caliber 1 inch and 50 guns caliber .50 inch. They could fire 400 to 700 rounds per minute (rpm) depending upon the crankability of the operator.
From 1866 until 1911, when the Gatling was officially declared obsolete, many different models and calibers were produced. During its years of acceptability the guns were produced in .45/70, .30/40 Krag, .30/06 Springfield, and many foreign calibers.
They were mounted on the traditional wheeled carriages or on bolt-down tripod supports. One model of particular interest was the "camel" model of 1874 which had short barrels and was mounted by tripod on the saddle of a camel. The U.S. Army actually bought 11 of these 10-barrel camel guns in .45/70 caliber.
In 1877 the short-barreled "Bulldog" model came out, totally encased in a bronze housing over breech and barrels. With five 12-inch barrels in .45/70 caliber it was suggested for police forces. The 1883 model was the first full-length Gatling to be enclosed in a bronze housing.
Gatling was always strong on making improvements in his weapons. In an effort to compete with the new automatic machine guns, Gatling, in 1893, attached an electric motor to his gun which allowed a firing rate of 3,000 rpms. The new motor did nothing for the portability of his Gatling. And its high rate of fire was considered wasteful at this time. It was, of course, intended for shipboard use. Also, by this year the automatic Maxim and its ilk were in vogue so Gatling's motorized achievement was largely ignored.
The Gatling was not produced or sold in a vacuum. Plenty of competition was out there. The Agar, Gardner, Montigny Mitrailleuse, Nordenfelt, and Claxton were top competitors. Some even attached names to their handiwork like Annihilator, Pulverizer, Vixen and Broom.
Despite its imperfections the Gatling generally outperformed its rivals. An example of tested superiority came in 1870 when the British pitted the Gatling against a French Mitrailleuse, a six-man squad armed with Martini-Henry rifles and a six-man squad using Snyder rifles.
In a 2.5 minute timed-fire contest the Snyder soldiers got off 313 rounds with 82 hits, the Martini-Henry squad fired 391 rounds with 152 hits, the Mitrailleuse released 1,073 rounds with 214 hits, but the Gatling did the best of all: 1925 rounds with 651 hits.
Another test of some interest occurred in 1869 at Carlsbad, Baden, Germany. One hundred selected infantrymen armed with the famous Prussian needle gun competed against a Gatling at 100 meters. The Gatling hit the target with 88 percent of its bullets. The soldiers succeeded in hitting the target with only 27 percent of their bullets. The Gatling was clearly superior.
A few years ago the writer witnessed a similar test in connection with a celebration at Fort Sisseton, South Dakota. The Gatling (.45/70 caliber) easily outscored a squad of participants using .45/70 trapdoor Springfields. It was also a thrill to see a reproduction mountain howitzer wipe out an unoccupied outhouse. Had it been occupied, no doubt the thrill would have been lessened.
Many nations placed orders for the Gatlings, including were Britain, Japan, Russia and Turkey. Spain bought 50 guns at $1,500 each in 1870 and took delivery in Cuba.
As time went on and experience mounted up, the Gatling became more acceptable in the frontier army. There was some concern about ammunition expenditure and target practice was often limited. For example, when two Gatling guns were issued in 1867 to the 7th Cavalry then in Kansas, Lt. E.S. Godfrey (later Brigadier General and Medal of Honor recipient) was placed in charge of Gatling training. When Godfrey proposed to have target practice, his commanding officer informed Godfrey that Godfrey was personally responsible for the cost of ammunition expended. The Gatlings sat idle for several years.
The Gatling probably received its greatest public renown after the United States entered the Spanish-American War. When the 300-pound-plus, gout-ridden Gen. W. Rufus Shafter, commander of the U.S. Army’s Fifth Corps, embarked his 17,000 man force at Tampa, Fla., he took along a full company of Gatling guns.
As it turned out they were well worth the price of cartage. In the attack on San Juan Hill (1898) Lt. J.H. Parker mingled his Gatlings among the attacking infantrymen and dismounted Rough Riders. The Gatlings contributed mightily to the eventual capture of the hill. Many historians have given the Gatlings major credit for the victory.
The San Juan Hill success was the "last hurrah" for the American Gatlings. In 1911 they were officially declared obsolete. Richard Gatling was not present at the end. He had died in 1903. Gatling might have been happy that his gun had been replaced on the world market by the creations of Maxim, Hotchkiss, Lewis and Browning — all Americans.
Britain's "frontier" experience with the Gatling was not too much different from that of the United States. In 1873 the King of the Ashanti moved against the British Gold Coast colony in West Africa. It was not long before the disreputable and torturous conduct of King Koffee (his correct name) generated a punitive expedition under Maj. Gen. Sir Garnet Wolseley who was known for his efficiency as leader of the bloodless Red River Expedition during the Riel Rebellion in Manitoba. He soon forced King Koffee to submit.
Wolseley took along a few Gatlings to offset the numerical superiority of the Ashantis. The Times (London) on hearing of the expedition's departure with Gatlings declared that Sir Garnet "...cannot do any better than treat them to a little Gatling music …” But this he failed to do.
At the start of the campaign Sir Garnet gave a Gatling demonstration to some tribal chieftains. The gun quickly jammed. Embarrassed, he left the Gatlings behind when the expedition moved into the interior. Like Custer, Sir Garnet claimed that the terrain was not conducive to Gatling transport.
The Gatlings fared somewhat better during the Zulu War of 1879. This war, which resulted from the British annexation of the Transvaal, caused Lord Chelmsford to invade Zululand on Jan. 12, 1879. One column of his army was almost totally destroyed at Isandhlwana after Chelmsford failed to prepare proper defensive positions. His one Gatling gun saw no action.
Chelmsford reorganized in Natal and returned to annihilate Chief Cetewayo’s army at Ulundi. Over 470 Zulu warriors were killed. His four Gatling guns, actually supplied and manned by Royal Navy personnel, gave a good account of themselves; the power of the Zulus was broken.
From 1880 until the turn of the century British policy and practice requiring Gatling support shifted to the Sudan and Egypt. In 1881 Col. Arabi Pasha led an officers’ revolt against the Khedive of Egypt which had more than overtones of anti-European feeling. In fact, most of Arabi Pasha's followers got "out-of-hand" and nationalistic riots became common.
Back in England, Prime Minister Gladstone's cabinet decided to intervene in Egypt to restore order and protect foreign lives and property. It sent an army under Sir Garnet Wolseley, who really got around during Britain's imperialistic years, to bring things back to normal. Alexandria was occupied after a bombardment and after the streets were "cleaned" by Gatling fire.
Sir Garnet, following a secret night approach, defeated Arabi Pasha's 30,000 man force at Tel-El-Kebir on Sept. 13, 1882. The six Gatlings used in the battle, again manned by the Royal Navy, received many plaudits for their effectiveness. Britain maintained its control of Egypt for the next 60 years.
It appeared that Gatling weaponry was obsolete or at best passe by the end of the 19th century. As it turned out this assumption was incorrect. The Gatling was more or less on a hiatus caused by the technology level at the time.
As machine gun technology moved through two world wars, it appears that the primary goal of machine gun development was getting the firing rate as high as possible. Ease and efficiency of operation seemed to be necessary — but secondary. The Germans won, for by the end of World War II they had created the Mauser MG42 with a firing capacity of over 1,200 rpm. It also boasted a barrel which could be changed in five seconds.
Overheated barrels were a problem, so much so that it was this problem which eventually pulled the old Gatling concept of a multi-barreled weapon out of the dustbin of superseded technology. The Gatling revival began in 1946.
In June of 1946 the General Electric Company received a contract under the title "Vulcan Project" for the development of a new high-speed weapon suitable for aircraft. This it did. After much experimentation and testing the Vulcan M61 20mm Gatling gun was deployed 10 years later. It became the standard armament on fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. The gun is an electrically powered six barreled weapon with a top capacity of 6,000 rpm.
During the 1960s engineering work began on a Gatling gun of lesser proportions which would fire 7.62 mm NATO ammunition at a high rate of delivery. Like the M61 Vulcan it was intended for aircraft, for during ground combat the high rate of fire would waste ammunition and its electronic gear with batteries would make it too cumbersome for rapid movement. The M134 Machine Gun, commonly referred to as the "minigun," is a six-barreled electronically powered machine gun in 7.62 mm NATO caliber. Incorporated in all guns was a selective fire option for either a 2,000 rpm or a 4,000 rpm delivery rate. Both the Vulcan M16 and the M134 minigun have seen plenty of wartime service.
One additional Gatling gun deserves individual attention. It is the U.S. Navy's Phalanx Mk 15 Close-in-Weapons System (CIWS), produced by Hughes Missile Systems Company. Production started in 1978. The Navy defines the function of this weapon as “… a terminal defense against anti-ship missiles that have penetrated other fleet defenses.”
It has the M61A1 Gatling gun operating in connection with a VPS-2 pulse-Doppler J-band search and track radar and digital computer system. Both are totally self-activating. All it needs is the detection of an enemy missile to send out a shower of 20mm projectiles. Hopefully at least one projectile will intercept the incoming missile(s). The weight of the CIWS, loaded, is 13,620 pounds, too heavy for a Marine and more expensive than a Cadillac. There have been variations in all of the new weapon types.
The Gatling gun has, indeed, come a long way since 1862. Richard Jordan Gatling must have whirled in his coffin or danced on hot coals when he first noticed the deployment of the current generation of his Gatling guns.
(About the Author: Ernie Teagarden is a retired professor of business at Dakota State University who has an interest in military history, especially British. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications.)