The Gatling gun was an invention of a North Carolina native, Richard J. Gatling. Born in 1818 in Hertford County to a farming family, Gatling always had a knack for inventing new technologies. At twenty years of age, Richard started his career as an inventor when he built a screw propelling wheel in 1838. However, the wheel had already been patented, yet this did not stop the young inventor. Gatling soon moved to St. Louis, Missouri and continued producing agricultural instruments.
Once Gatling moved to Missouri, he worked on rice-seed planter that he eventually fashioned as a wheat-drill. The inventor created several other inventions at this time including a hemp brake, a steam plow, and a cotton cultivator. Even though Gatling had success with these inventions, his best invention would be the world’s first rapid fire gun.
In 1862, Richard Gatling had finally patented the first machine gun, known as the Gatling gun. He had developed the idea at the start of the Civil War and he spent a decade on improving the original model. Richard had modified his rice-seed planter into a cartridge-feeding apparatus, and he built his Gatling gun around this mechanism. A Cincinnati company constructed the original Gatling gun models that “had a single barrel fed by a rotary chamber and fired 190 bullets per minute” (Powell, p. 494).
Despite the new technology of the Gatling gun, the Union army decided against the rapid firing gun. General Benjamin Butler bought 13 guns and employed them at Bermuda Hundred in 1863. However, the gun proved ineffective and the Gatling gun was not used for the rest of the Civil War. Richard Gatling continued improving his gun even though the original model was turned down during the War Between the States.
Gatling’s new model became successful because the original paper cartridges were exchanged with more reliable brass cartridges. The Union army bought 100 guns in 1866, and Gatling sold his gun patent to Colt’s Armory based in Hartford, Connecticut in 1870. After more modifications, the machine gun could fire over 1,200 rounds and the gun was used in both the Franco-Prussian War and in Indian skirmishes in the American West. However, new technologies in the ensuing decades were preferred over the Gatling gun.
Richard Gatling remained in the inventing field although his Gatling gun proved ineffective compared to newer Nordenfeldt and Maxim machine guns. The Hertford native invented several inventions for agriculture and he was president of the American Association of Inventors and Manufacturers from 1891 to 1897. Gatling died when he was 85 years of age in 1903 but not before he invented one last invention, the motor-driven plow, in 1900.
“Gatling Gun.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).
“Richard J. Gatling.” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website. A Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. (accessed January 21, 2011).
By Jonathan Martin, North Carolina History Project
See Also:Related Categories: Business and Industry, Civil War, Entrepreneurship