Military history




The Birth of Machine Guns

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.1 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,2 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.”3

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.4 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.”5 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.”6 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,7 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.”8

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.9 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.”10 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 that rapid-fire weapons would be used to suppress indigenous tribes late in the nineteenth century, including columns of Mahdist fighters in British campaigns along the Nile. It also suggested that he knew next to nothing of ballistics. Investors steered wide. The gun never went into production.

By the Civil War, the new manufacturing capacity in the United States was moving the craft of gunsmithing into the realm of mass production, putting it firmly on the terrain of the speculator and engineer. Puckle’s fancy fell to more practical men. Since the 1850s, with improvements in metallurgy, toolmaking, and precision labor, there had been a flurry of fresh design efforts, and war in the 1860s had proven to be a stimulant to arms makers and their salesmen. A six-barrel rapid-fire weapon known as the Ripley had been conceived of in Troy, New York, although it had not made it out of the prototype phase. General Origen Vandenburgh, of the New York State Militia, had been conducting tests of his own line of volley guns, and envisioned what he called “their life-destroying efficiency at every point.” An arms race had begun, although initially it was driven more by private designers and profit-seekers than by armies or governments. “We involuntarily look for the most deadly weapon by which men can destroy each other in the open field, and not without ample cause, for decisive struggles, on which national results will depend, will be decided there,” General Vandenburgh told an assembly of British officers in 1862.11 The general’s loyalty to the nation seems to have been less well developed than his desire for sales receipts. After the United States military refused to adopt his weapon, saying, among other things, that it took nine hours to clean after firing, the general took it to England, found a manufacturer, and offered his weapon’s “life-destroying efficiency” to the Confederacy, which bought at least one. He was not the only Northern businessman supplying the enemy. A firm in Rochester, New York, offered a new volley gun, the Requa, with twenty-five .58-caliber barrels arranged in a single row. The Confederate Army had incorporated a few of these weapons into its forces as well; a quick and well-supplied crew could fire seven volleys through a Requa in a minute, 175 bullets in all.12 Another gun, the Union Repeating Gun, fired repeatedly through a single barrel by the means of a hand crank. Then came Gatling.

The sketch that accompanied Gatling’s patent application showed that he had given the concept of rapid fire an ingeniously effective form. He had placed six heavy rifled barrels in circular fashion around a central axis, a design somewhat like a revolver in reverse, with the barrels spinning, rather than a cylinder behind them. A hand crank on the right side rotated each barrel through its turns firing, as ammunition was fed from a canister above. The weapon was a sight. It rested between two carriage wheels, like a small cannon. One writer gave it a name: “the little death angel.”13It was an angel with curious parentage. Gatling appeared to have borrowed heavily from previous gun designers—the crank and hopper from the Repeating Gun, the six barrels of the Ripley. He also drew from himself. His first battery gun shared design elements with a cotton planter and rotary cultivator, except that it directed evenly spaced bullets, not seeds, where the handlers intended them to go. The result was still not a true automatic weapon. Gatling’s gun was manually operated. It required external assistance from the soldier at the handle to produce continuous fire, and it bore little resemblance to the automatic infantry arms in service today. But Gatling had created a weapon that fired with great rapidity and considerable accuracy, and was a technically sound step closer to the firearm manufacturer’s ideal of automatic fire. The term machine gun had not yet entered military jargon or the public imagination, but here was the forerunner: the 1862 Gatling, the first reasonably reliable weapon that could provide continuous rifle fire. It needed only to be debugged, and for the ammunition industry to catch up.

Modifications to the battery gun followed, as did public demonstrations. Witness accounts and ordnance test reports show that nothing quite like the effect of a Gatling gun had ever been seen. With this bulky invention, two men could produce controlled and withering streams of bullets beyond the ranges at which infantrymen of the time typically fought. Newspaper editors in Indiana cheered the arrival of a mechanical killing tool. “The newly invented gun of Richard J. Gatling, of this city, was put through an experimental trial yesterday, with blank cartridges, at the State House square, in the presence of the Governor and a large crowd of citizens. It operates very successfully and will certainly prove to be a weapon of war both novel and deadly.”14 Indiana’s governor, Oliver P. Morton, had been impressed enough that he ordered state tests. The initial examination was promising. “The discharge can be made with all desirable accuracy as rapidly as 150 times per minute, and may be continued for hours without danger, as we think, from overheating,” the three reviewers wrote. The weapon’s endurance while firing was an essential improvement over the Repeating Gun, which, with a single barrel and the characteristics of metals of the time, was vulnerable to malfunction caused by extreme heat. (One test in England would find that the Repeating Gun’s “barrel grew first red and then nearly white hot, large drops of fused metal poured from the muzzle, and the firing had to be discontinued from fear of worse consequences.”)15 The Gatling gun’s evaluators were impressed. “The very low price at which the gun can be made, its superiority in every respect, induce us to hope that your Excellency will order enough to be immediately constructed for a fair experiment in the field.”16 Early praise did not spur sales on a significant scale, but Gatling’s prototypes had made him a leader in a pack of arms designers—many of them genuine, some charlatans—racing for business.

These designers sought customers, and Gatling hoped to manufacture his line for the Union Army, the institution most likely to make him a very rich man. He also had little choice. During the war, the United States had imposed an embargo on arms exports. Sales contact with the Confederacy would be treason, and aside from the War Department there were few potential customers. The great size of the Gatling gun, and its relative complexity, made it a tool for institutions, not individuals. Gatling had spent the war years trying to entice the army into a deal, and had been helped by Governor Morton, who urged Peter H. Watson, an assistant secretary of war, to consider the Gatling gun for Union Army service. Good connections did not matter. Always Gatling had failed. The army showed no interest in his bullet-spitting contraption. A limited trial in 1863 by the navy indicated that the design had merit. The battery gun, wrote Lieutenant J. S. Skerrett, who supervised the tests, “has proved itself to be a very effective arm at short range; is well constructed, and calculated to stand usage to which it would necessarily be subjected.”17 The navy ordered a small number of Gatlings. But the army did not budge.

The Union Army was engaged in some of the most ferocious fighting ever seen, the fate of the American experiment was at stake, and many other young technologies were being applied to wide-scale use in war: rail transport, the telegraph, the repeating rifle, and more. All that Gatling had managed was a side arrangement in 1863 with Major General Benjamin F. Butler, a politician turned general in command of the Massachusetts Volunteers. General Butler often acted according to his own whim, and at the request of Gatling’s agent in the East, a demonstration was performed for him in Baltimore as he made his way south toward the war. He bought twelve guns on the spot for one thousand dollars apiece, along with twelve thousand cartridges. It should have been a promising start, but much went wrong. Gatling claimed to have paid $769 per gun to the machine shop he had contracted to manufacture them. Had his company received one thousand dollars for each of the dozen guns, there would have been at best a small profit after his agent’s commission. But Butler’s cash did not find its way to the inventor. “I never got any of that money,” he complained. “My agent went to Chicago with it, where he failed in business before he had made a settlement. So you see I was, so far, badly out of pocket.”18 Moreover, if the weapons had ended up in the hands of a different and more experienced general, they might have been put to imaginative work, and Gatling’s full loss could have been offset by a rush of orders. But Butler is remembered more for his foul reputation among Southerners than as a tactician.19 He retains the distinction of being the first army officer ever to bring modern rapid-fire arms to war. Yet he used them little. Butler’s Gatlings were apparently employed in the defense near Richmond,20 where they were effective in repelling a Confederate attack, and again at a fight along the James and Appomattox rivers. But little else is known of them, and they did not leave a strong impression in the Union Army, or influence the direction of the war.

As Gatling pondered his business in February 1864, nearly three years into the Civil War and with no significant sales on his books, the only other known use of his battery guns had been in mid-July 1863 at the New York Times, a Republican paper and stalwart backer of President Lincoln. The city had been shaken that summer by protests against draft laws that allowed citizens to buy their way out of Union conscription with a payment of three hundred dollars. The large fee meant that only the rich could afford a waiver. Class rage flowed, mixed with racist anger against blacks, who many white citizens thought would be competing with them for jobs. After an attempt to hold a new conscription lottery in July, rioters clashed with the police and roamed the city, burning buildings and beating freed slaves. At least several hundred people were killed. The Timeshad supported the draft laws and editorialized against the rioters. It backed its words with a bizarre reserve at its offices on Park Row: Gatling guns ready to turn back any mob. Accounts of the newspaper’s armory have varied. By one, Henry Jarvis Raymond, the Times’ editor, was said to have personally manned a Gatling from behind a north-facing window that commanded a view of the street, and to have urged one the Times’ principal stockholders to join him if necessary. “Give them the grape, and plenty of it,” he said,21 although the guns were never fired. On the night of July 13, mobs had ransacked the offices of another pro-Lincoln paper, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, before being driven off in a club-swinging melee with the police. The next night, fresh mobs appeared, but seeing Gatling guns pointing from the Times’ front entrances, the rioters chose to converge once more on Greeley’s office, which the managing editor had arranged to have lined with wet newspaper to keep down the risk of fire. The crowd seethed with menace but withdrew when its members saw Greeley’s staff had taken arms, too, and rifles bristled from the windows.22 Where the Times’ Gatlings came from has been lost to history, but the newspaper’s offices weathered the riots without suffering so much as a broken window.

The deployment at the Times and the brief trial by Butler’s troops were anomalies. Whatever the merits of the battery gun—and as yet it was not perfected and the ammunition it fired was problematic—the bureaucratic obstacles against it were substantial. Throughout the war Gatling’s ambitions had been undermined by Brigadier General James W. Ripley, the army’s prickly and by-the-book chief of ordnance, who was nearing seventy years of age and was not inclined to entertain new ideas. Ripley had devoted himself to trying to standardize the Union Army’s mismatched collection of weapons, and was annoyed by the parade of salesmen with their gimmicks and untried wares, who were seeking to add ever more arms to an already sprawling assortment.23 (If war is an incubator for industry and weapons development, it is also a phenomenon that attracts profiteers and quacks. Ripley faced problems that will always accompany a government that has the power to make an arms salesman instantly rich. Several decades later, the British minister of munitions would describe the phenomenon perfectly; “I was, naturally being deluged at the Ministry of Munitions with letters and calls from people who had some new invention or improvement to propose. The great majority of these ideas were, of course, useless, and many of them came from cranks and lunatics.”)24 In Ripley’s case, the forces working against standardization were extraordinary. Both sides had been unprepared for war when war arrived. The Union Army had grown from 16,000 officers and men to a force of 486,000 in a matter of months,25 and Ripley was tasked with finding them arms and ammunition. The arming risked becoming frantic and slipshod; as the war progressed, between the Union and the Confederacy there were no fewer than 370 different types of small arms on the battlefields, in at least sixty-five calibers. This count did not include the personal arms that many soldiers carried to the fighting.26

Gatling also faced darker problems. He had been born in North Carolina, to slave-holding parents, and had settled in the North. Rumors circulated that he was a Confederate sympathizer masquerading as a businessman, and had built his weapon in Cincinnati, near Southern lines, so that rebel troops might seize his arms stores in a raid.27 It was a peculiar form of war hysteria, and like most forms of hysteria, it was illogical. In the eyes of the federal government, the gun was not good enough for United States service, and yet the government feared that the other side might secure and use it against the Union’s troops. By February 1864, having invested heavily in a weapon that yielded little return, Gatling had had enough. He sought the ear of President Lincoln, to whom he composed a sales pitch, right down to the enclosed brochure. “Pardon me for the liberty I have taken,” the inventor began. “I enclose herewith a circular giving a description of the ‘Gatling Gun,’ of which I am inventor and patentee.

“The arm in question,” he added, “is an invention of no ordinary character.”28

As Gatling posted his letter, war had reached its bloodiest form yet. The Industrial Revolution, and the American zest for capitalism, were proving to be incubators for weapons development, and the soldiers of the time faced firearms and artillery that were becoming more powerful and more precise. Ordered into battle at close ranges, in solid-colored uniforms and in dense formations, they were easy marks at short distances, and suffered miserably from bullet and shrapnel injuries, as well as from diseases stalking both armies’ filthy camps. In the 1850s, the United States Army had switched from using round musket balls and chosen to issue Minié balls, which were faster and more accurate. The Confederacy, whose senior ordnance officers came from American service, chose Minié balls as well. This meant that both Union and Confederate units, going into battle in close-order drill, were blasting away at each other with rifles of terrible power.29 Enormous amounts of lead were in the air. War records suggest that the Union Army alone procured more than one billion rounds from foreign and domestic suppliers. At two hundred yards, the Minié balls fired from most service weapons could penetrate from nine to eleven inches into white pine; at six hundred yards, they penetrated more than five inches. Experiments with cartridges of the time found that even stray rounds traveling far from the barrel, slowed to the speed of 362 feet per second, would pass effortlessly through an inch-thick pine board, or shatter the leg bone of an ox.30

Accounts of the carnage were accumulating. More than 50,000 casualties at Gettysburg, nearly 35,000 at Chickamauga, another 30,000 at Chancellorsville. And as arms and ordnance plants churned out new developments, the medical arts had not kept pace. Even the lightly wounded faced agony. Anesthesia was only beginning to enter widespread use, which, as one chronicler noted, often meant that “nine-tenths of surgical skill was speed.”31 Amputations were performed in tents and commandeered buildings at battle’s edge, at times by surgeons who sawed off shattered limbs from one partially sedated soldier while his wounded comrades queued up and watched, waiting their turns.32 This was also before the causes of infection were known. Working in ignorance of bacteria, the surgeons who accompanied the soldiers into battle often did not wash their hands or change instruments between patients, many of whom either expired from putrefying infections after their wounds were sutured or arrived at convalescent hospitals away from the front feverish, weakened, and at risk. “Our house is one of constant death now,” the chief nurse at the Union Hospital in Washington had written to her mother in New England, as Gatling was seeking his patent in 1862. “Every day some one drops off the corruption of a torn and wounded body.”33 Two days after Gatling’s patent was awarded, she lamented of laboring to save the wrecked and infected men in the hospital’s dim halls and cold rooms, an environment beset by “universal depression.” “When the day dawns one of my men has gone, and before the hour of supper time comes we close the eyes of two more, one the only son of his mother!”34

The names of these lost sons filled lists in the newspapers around the land, North and South. By the time Gatling wrote Lincoln, about half a million Union and Confederate soldiers were dead, by far the largest toll that the nation had ever suffered in war, and ever would. Hundreds of thousands more men had been wounded. These were staggering numbers for a nation with a population of 31 million. (The proportionate equivalent would be roughly 5 million dead Americans in the first three years of the most recent war in Iraq.) They were even more staggering considering that neither the Union nor the Confederate tallies included civilian tolls. Gatling offered to help end the bloodletting through a counterintuitive means: more efficient slaughter. He hoped that President Lincoln would see that his weapon—“very simple in its construction, strong and durable and can be used effectively by men of ordinary intelligence”—was “providential, to be used as a means in crushing the rebellion.”

The decision to seek the president’s attention was not unwise, but it was poorly timed. In June 1861, at the outset of the war, Lincoln had expressed enough of a personal interest in the Union Army’s weapons that he had agreed to meet with the salesmen of the Union Repeating Gun, designed, depending on which patent application one believes, by either Wilson Ager, Edward Nugent, or William Palmer.35 Its vendors were no strangers to overstatement. They called their offering “an Army in six-feet square.” It was a single-barreled weapon with a revolving cylinder set just behind the stationary barrel, which made it more like a huge revolver than Gatling’s eventual development. The cylinder was turned via the working of a hand-crank. And as each of the .58-caliber projectiles flew from the thirty-five-inch barrel, at a rate of 120 rounds a minute, new paper cartridges rolled into place from a metal box mounted above.36

Lincoln believed in technology, and he thought that the right weapons, made with the Union’s industrial advantages, might hurry the fighting along toward victory. When the Repeating Gun’s salesmen arrived from New York and checked into the Willard Hotel in Washington, the president ventured down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to participate in a demonstration in the loft of a carriage house. Empty cartridges were used, but Lincoln, manning the crank himself, was able to see the cartridges cycle from the box above, through the cylinders, and drop out below. It was the first time a head of state had such a personal encounter with a rapid-fire firearm—a sales phenomenon that within a few years would become common practice in Europe. Lincoln was impressed. He called the weapon the “Coffee Mill,” a homespun nickname coined at the sight of cartridges falling from the hopper and out onto the ground through the movement of a handle, which made the contraption vaguely reminiscent of a grinder.37

A few days later the president attended a firing trial with live ammunition at the Washington Arsenal. By the year’s end he had instructed the army to order sixty of the guns. The first fifty were bought for $612.50 apiece, plus 20 percent, the following July.38 With that order, J. D. Mills, the salesman, became the first arms dealer to sell a machine gun,39 a career path many would follow. Gatling hoped to be next.

The mood for revolutionary weapons in Washington, however, was different in early 1864 than it had been in 1861. More than two years of intense fighting had passed since Mills’s sales coup, and no fewer than twenty-five different “machine-gun devices,” as one American military officer called them, had been submitted to ordnance officials.40 Lincoln had pushed for another early machine gun, known as the Raphael Repeater, but General Ripley had stymied that weapon, too. And the Coffee Mills that Lincoln had managed to urge into service, and Butler’s Gatlings, had been of little consequence, for many reasons. Some were the weapon’s fault, others not. Paper cartridges were prone to failure. Coffee Mills had seen combat under Colonel John W. Geary in Middleburg, Virginia, in 1862, when they pushed back a Confederate cavalry squadron.41 But the colonel later returned the guns to Washington and complained they were inefficient and unsafe. The single barrel, firing heavy bullets and exposed to the bullets’ friction and the great heat of the powder that propelled them, was prone to overheating. The loads of ammunition required to supply the weapons were a heavy burden for the men and draft horses needed to move the weapon into position for a fight. There were also reports that the weapons’ parts broke, causing the entire system to fail. The rebels’ Requas had also not redeemed themselves. The Confederate volley gun weighed nearly fourteen hundred pounds and tended not to work when its ammunition was exposed to moisture. Rapid-fire weapons were too new, and the army’s officers too unfamiliar with them, for machine gunnery to find a place in the war.

Worries about logistics and performance were not the only factors that had dampened enthusiasm. An absence of imagination played a part. The federal and Confederate officers had been unable to conceive of an essential tactical role for these new weapons. Officers were simply not sure what to do with them. They regarded them as offshoots of artillery, not as infantry arms. Rapid-fire arms stood garrison duty. They watched over bridges. Butler dragged them along as his unit walked across the South. They were not pushed to the center of battlefield duty, and, as near as the surviving records and accounts of the fighting tell, were never used in the offense. No one quite knew how, and no one was advocating for them from within.

Gatling sensed what he was up against. His claim to Lincoln—that the gun he offered was of no ordinary character—was certainly true. Unlike the guns his competitors sold, his weapon was showing signs in field trials that it did not overheat and was a step closer to making the elusive goal of rapid fire real. He wanted Lincoln to know that what he offered was not another curio, and far surpassed the lackluster machine that had intrigued the president almost three years before. He included a postscript in his letter: “I have seen an inferior arm known as the ‘Coffee Mill Gun’ which I am informed has not given satisfaction in practical tests on the battlefield. I assure you my invention is no ‘Coffee Mill Gun’—but is entirely a different arm and is entirely free from the accidents and objections raised against that arm.”

Performance did not matter. The Confederacy by 1864 had both bloodied the Union’s formations and become so weakened by the materially superior federal troops that the promise of a swift victory brought on by a new and terribly efficient weapon was neither as inviting, nor as believable, as it might have been before. Gatling waited for an answer from a president whose attention had drifted. Lincoln did not intervene on Gatling’s behalf. There is no record that he troubled to reply.

The time was not spent idly. Work on the Gatling gun line continued. Gatling had initially had his weapons manufactured in Cincinnati. In 1864, upon making another model with many refinements, he commissioned the Cooper Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, of Pennsylvania, to build an improved prototype. The new model was much more reliable and efficient. Gatling’s sales agent, General John Love, a well-connected retired army veteran and graduate of West Point, offered the weapon for trials to the Army Ordnance Department in January 1865. General Ripley, who had thwarted Gatling from the beginning, had retired. His eventual replacement, Brigadier General Alexander B. Dyer, was twenty years younger than his former boss and more amenable to examining new submissions. The latest Gatling’s performance was of a much higher order, and new developments in ammunition meant the weapon now fired metal cartridges, rather than the paper cartridges used in the earlier guns. Trials were ordered. The army’s ordnance corps began to see its potential. “Dr. Gatling’s gun seems to possess all the good qualities claimed for it,” a test supervisor wrote. “It is therefore merely a question of whether such a piece would be of use in actual service.”42

The Gatling gun had largely missed the war that spurred its creation, but it had found official support at last. Machine guns were no longer the fancies of men like Puckle. They were nearing commercial success, and were soon to be put to use.

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