Gatling’s Marvelous Gun

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Need a primer on the original manually-cranked Gatling gun? Of course you do, or you know someone who does. The Historical Firearms blog has what you need, with a lengthy post covering in modest detail the operation and history of the gun, from its origins as an improved “coffee mill” gun to its maturation as the premier manually-operated metallic-cartridge firing proto-machine gun:

Invented by Dr Richard Gatling in 1861 the Gatling Gun is the most famous of all manual machine guns. Cycled by the operator the weapon’s rate of fire was limited only by the speed of which it could be operated.  With a number of barrels arrayed around a central axis and a top loading magazine which loaded each barrel in turn before the continuing turn of the guns crank fired the weapon.  Famously inspired by Gatling’s hope to minimise the number of men needed to fight during the US Civil War, this flawed logic lead to a weapon which would be used throughout the world until it was finally surpassed in the 1890s by the Maxim Gun – a fully-automatic machine gun.

The basic design of Gatling’s gun was refined over its 40 year lifespan but the basic operation remained the same.  The weapon had six to ten barrels each with its own bolt, firing pin and extractor with each barrel firing in sequence.   Ammunition fed in from the top of the receiver with a single cartridge being loaded into each chamber.  As the gun’s crank was rotated the action was cycled with the barrels turning through 360-degrees, each barrel had a cammed lock/bolt which fed the cartridges. When the barrel reached the 6 o’clock position of the cycle its firing pin was tripped by the movement of the barrel’s cammed lock firing the gun. The fired barrel then continued to travel clockwise and the spent case is pulled from the breech by the bolt which is being retracted by the spiralled cam.  This process meant that each barrel was fired with one turn of the crank.  Early models were capable of up to 200 round per minute but later models were able to fire much faster with rates ranging between 700 to 1,000 round per minute – the upper limit of a manually loaded and cranked action.  This high rate of sustained fire was made possible by the Gatling’s numerous barrels, each barrel once fired had time to allow heat to dissipate unlike a conventional single barrel machine gun.

This linear diagram from 1878 shows how the Gatling’s action worked with the bolts moved by the spiraled cam which loaded, fired and extracted the ammunition (source)

Gatling was granted a patent for the ‘Improvement in revolving battery-guns’ on the 4th November, 1862 (see image #7).   The first model Gatling Gun fed from a hopper which had been used on the earlier Agar ‘coffee mill’ Gun.  The cartridge fired by the gun went through a rapid evolution through separate .58 calibre paper cartridges and percussion caps contained within what Gatling described as ‘cartridge chambers’ these self contained metal tubes held powder, percussion cap and projectile.  These early reusable steel cartridges tubes led to problems with gas leakage but despite these problems the gun was reportedly able to fire up to 200 rounds per minute. The introduction of truly self-contained brass cartridges improved the reliability of feeding and by 1865 the weapon fed metallic rimfire cartridges from the gravity assisted hopper.

In part both because of the early problems of the Gatling, and its later success, the United States would fall behind in adopting true self-powered machine guns, with the Army adopting its first such weapon only as late as 1909.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • Brody

    I’ve fired a gatling that used the .58 cal tubes. Very fun but extremely smoky.

    • I’ve never fired a Gatling Brody. I have, however, made a frame and mounted two AR-15’s side by side with a device to turning a crank. Fantastic results. I also did the same using two Ruger 10-22’s.

  • Sianmink

    Note the clever and cunning tripod that makes sure all rounds are fired at precisely dick-height.

  • Tassiebush

    The simplicity of the Gatling and other mechanical machine guns like the Gardner and Nordenfeldt really is quite impressive. It’d be interesting to know how they compared to early automatic machineguns. Especially if they ever went head to head in a battle!? The Gatling obviously was pretty practical given it’s reincarnation as the minigun.
    The Nordenfeldt seems unique in the sense that it seemed more like a rapid fire volley gun instead of firing a consistent burst like the others.
    I guess the biggest disadvantage of these hand cranked guns was disturbing aim to work them.

  • VonKarman is the man

    C.J. Chiver’s book “The Gun” has a big section on Gatling and his gun. I highly recommend the book.

    • Nice username. 😉

    • MANG

      Social History of the Machine Gun is another good book dealing with the early manual MG’s into the development of the Maxim. Forgotten Weapons wasn’t so fond of the ‘social’ aspects of this book, but I appreciated the context. I definitely enjoy reading about the technical development of firearms but guns don’t exist in a vacuum.

      Really The Gun is the best book on firearms for my money, precisely because it delves so thoroughly into social and political as well as technical aspects.

      • The Social History of the Machine Gun is my favorite Mang; I’ve read it three times. I have a collection of books published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

    • I’ve read the book and it’s a good one. Mostly on the AK-47. I like this site very much.

  • Don Ward

    Back in the old days, gun owners preferred the Tacti-classy look.

  • Zebra Dun

    And yet there stood Custer and more Indians than anyone had ever seen at one time, I bet he gave some thought to the Gatlings he left behind as too slow.

  • jlknuteson

    I have seen what your saying I thought it was type of gun powder though it smoked up and took a while for the smoke to disparate

  • buzzman1

    The Gatling gun is still in widespread use today only they are called things like mini-gun, Vulcan, Chaingun etc.