Military history


Machine Guns in Action

Merely a Life-Exterminating Weapon1

ON AUGUST 24, 1866, THE AMERICAN ARMY ENTERED A CONtract to purchase one hundred Gatling guns, signed under the hand of General Dyer, who had assumed command of the Ordnance Department two years before.2 Much had changed in the short time since General Dryer ordered the improved Gatling guns to be put through performance trials. General Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. President Lincoln had been assassinated at Ford’s Theater. The Gatling Gun Company had entered an agreement with the Colt Patent Firearms Company, in Hartford, Connecticut, which gave Gatling the manufacturing capacity to handle large orders. And the army had turned much of its attention westward, to the resumption of subjugating Native American populations and tightening the government’s hold on the vast wilderness territory that it claimed.

The latest army tests had led to enthusiastic reports. The weapon now had inside backing. “The moral effect of the Gatling gun would be very great in repelling an assault, as there is not a second of time for the assailants to advance between the discharges,” a report noted in 1866. The chief tester found as well that the weapon was suited for the demands of the field. “The machinery of this gun is simple and strong, and I do not think likely to get out of order. I had the oil rubbed off this gun, drenched it with water, and then exposed it for two nights and a day to the rain and the weather, but though it was quite rusty, it was fired 97 times in a minute and a half, one man turning at the crank. In my opinion this arm could be used to advantage in the military service.”3 Positive reviews accumulated in the navy, too. “From the examination made of the gun, and the report the tests hereto appended, the board is of opinion that, as an auxiliary arm for special service… it has no known superior.”4

Parallel developments had made Gatling’s weapon more reliable. The improvements to the weapon proper in 1865 had been matched by advances in ammunition manufacturing, which made cartridges with solid metal casings available. The new gun, with the new casings, was an altogether more effective system. Gatling in time admitted that perhaps his earlier sales efforts had been rushed. When he had written Lincoln, it seemed, he had been peddling an unreliable weapon. “The machine gun was not of much practical use until the metal cartridge had been perfected,” he said, “and that was not till after the war was ended.”5

The end of the war also brought an end to an American embargo on exporting arms. The American army was small, and with a large recent order, Gatling knew that there were natural limits to domestic sales. He also knew that the more nations that fielded Gatling guns, the more appealing they might become to others. With the export ban lifted, he searched for business overseas. He enlisted the help of international sales representatives, offering salaries and commissions. Company officers, including Gatling, went abroad. At their urging, trials were held in Holland, Berlin, Versailles, Vienna, and Denmark. Sales started slowly. But the efforts hinted at the new markets’ prospects. In 1867, the company sold the rights to Russia to make guns for its own use, and sold one gun to the Argentine Republic and another to the Royal Bavarian Arsenal. The Dutch bought two more, and the following year, in 1868, the royal Danish government ordered three. Word was spreading of the weapon’s potential, reaching those controlling the purse strings of several governments.

Then came a break. Czar Alexander II of Russia was trying to exert his empire’s influence over distant lands and indigenous populations. He sought arms, the best available, and in 1865 the czarist bureaucracy in Saint Petersburg assigned Colonel Alexander Pavlovich Gorloff to be the empire’s military attaché in England and the United States. Colonel Gorloff, an arms-design expert from the Russian artillery, was directed to canvass arms and ordnance circles in the West and see what might be procured. Russia has long produced able military agents, and Colonel Gorloff, given wide latitude by his country, was one for his time. He had refined manners, spoke exquisite English, and had experience as the former secretary of the nation’s Artillery Commission, where he had helped design Russian cannon. Upon arriving in the United States, he found himself drawn in particular to two systems: Smith & Wesson revolvers and Gatling guns. He introduced himself to American companies and comprehended the potential of repeating weapons with remarkable speed. By 1867 he convinced the czarist government to enter an agreement with the Gatling Gun Company to allow the Russian government to manufacture Gatlings.6 In May 1869, Colonel Gorloff submitted an order to have seventy guns made in the United States; within months he ordered thirty more. Russia was moving quickly. While the prevailing attitude among officers of almost all professional armies was to dismiss machine guns as nearly useless, the czarist military distributed them without an agonizing or time-consuming debate. Within a year, every Russian artillery brigade would field a battery of eight Gatlings made for Russian-caliber cartridges.7

Russia’s officers seemed much more determined to use Gatling guns than the inventor’s own countrymen. Even after General Dyer and other ordnance officers recorded the Gatling’s curious new powers and placed orders, the United States Army could not figure out what to do with them, aside from the obvious use in guarding forts and other fixed points. Some officers shunned them. “Against my wishes I was detailed to command them,” wrote Edward S. Godfrey, a recent graduate of West Point assigned to the Seventh Cavalry in Kansas in 1867 and ordered to oversee “four Gatlings hauled by two mules each.” He knew next to nothing about them, and had trouble finding soldiers to man them; this detail, like many others, apparently had been neglected since the guns had been delivered to Seventh Cavalry’s post. “The only Gatlings I had ever seen were in the ordnance museum at West Point,” Godfrey groused.8

The Russian purchases were made before Gatling himself knew just how powerful and well made his weapon had become. A test in Vienna, on July 9, 1869, showed the new weapon’s ferocious capabilities. At a distance of eight hundred paces, a Gatling crew took three trial shots and then opened fire with a Gatling gun of half-inch caliber. The target, fifty-four feet wide by nine feet high, simulated the sort of large enemy presence—a formation of soldiers, perhaps, or a boat or an artillery piece—that gunners would fire upon by traversing their weapon slightly and distributing fire for maximum effect. The crew took 216 shots. Two hundred and thirteen bullets struck home. At twelve hundred paces, a larger Gatling gun fired 191 shots for 152 hits.9 The results should have led to a self-evident conclusion: This was a weapon that could cut down the massed formations—the columns, lines, and squares of tightly grouped infantrymen—common in that day.

The following month, another test, at Karlsruhe, Prussia, pitted one hundred well-drilled infantry soldiers equipped with the zundnadelgewehr, a breech-loading rifle known as the “needle gun,” against a single half-inch-caliber Gatling. This time the target was seventy-two feet across but only six feet high. The competitors were given a minute each to fire as accurately and often as they could manage from a position eight hundred paces away. The one hundred Prussian riflemen produced a rolling barrage displaying the effects of what until that time had been seen as rapid firing: 721 shots, roughly one aimed shot per man every nine seconds. An examination of the target showed that much of the shooting had, in effect, been little more than noise. Only 196 projectiles struck the target, a success rate of 27 percent. The Gatling gun fired 246 shots and recorded 216 hits, or nearly 88 percent.10 Gatling’s gun had almost achieved its creator’s vision: Two men, not one, had done the work of one hundred men and with only about one-third the ammunition. The first part of Gatling’s theory about efficiency was proving correct. Technology was rendering the conventional infantry tactics of the era obsolete, although the conventional infantry did not yet know it.

More orders arrived. In 1870, a sales agent traveling the Middle East reported that he had in hand an order from Egypt for twenty-four guns. The company’s hired agency in Europe had paid off, too. In the late spring, the agent, L. W. Broadwell, traveled to Constantinople and arranged demonstrations for Halil Pasha, the grand master of artillery for the Ottoman Empire. With a new drum feed, he wrote, the .42-caliber Gatling “has never before worked so well—no more hitches of any kind.” He negotiated a contract to sell two hundred Gatling guns, to be manufactured under contract in Vienna, to the Turkish forces,11 whose artillery experts had moved more quickly than even Colonel Gorloff.

With several hundred Gatlings working their way into service in armies at Europe’s edges, the Europeans were busy with their own experiments with rapid rifle fire. Though they still favored the volley-gun design, they were developing guns that reduced the time between volleys and fired at rates comparing favorably with Gatling’s claims. The most successful result had been credited to a Belgian army captain in 1851, and was modified by Joseph Montigny, a Belgian engineer, who designed a cylinder holding thirty-seven fixed barrels, which were fired in an almost simultaneous sequence by a single clockwise turn of a crank. Montigny’s offering was a completely different concept from Gatling’s, and owed more to the volley guns, like the failed Vandenburgh, than to guns in American service. The French called the gun the mitrailleuse, or grapeshooter, a name that suggested its officers conceived of it as a new kind of artillery more than as an infantry arm. Reloading was achieved by removing a rear plate that had holes arranged to match the barrels. A soldier would insert a preloaded replacement plate into the grooves and close the breech. The mitrailleuse was ready for its next blast. Volley firing was thereby straightforward. A gunner would give the crank one swift turn, and bullets would fly. A fresh platter of bullets would be rushed into place, and the crank would be spun anew. Montigny claimed a trained crew, well supplied with ammunition, could repeat the cycle as often as twelve times in a minute, for 444 shots in all, discharged in volleys spaced only a few seconds apart.12 His tests, like those of the Gatling gun in Vienna and Karlsruhe, pointed to the lethal consequences for any massed infantry formation caught in the path of rifle bullets concentrated by a machine. At eight hundred yards, a cluster of thirty-seven bullets fired from a Montigny remained in a grouping roughly ten feet high by twelve feet wide. On paper, these were fearsome statistics. In the late 1860s, while Gatling was busily trying to sell France his improved weapons and personally attending field tests of his weapon in Versailles,13 Montigny convinced Napoleon III, the French emperor, to order that the mitrailleuse be distributed to French troops.

Manufacturing began in supposed secrecy at a French arsenal in Meudon, outside Paris. The secret could not be kept. French newspapers crowed about a devastating weapon soon to be unveiled, one that would fell the Prussians in rows. Inside European martial circles, officers’ clubs awaited the result, even as they shared the details of the emperor’s hushed work. “The secret is so jealously guarded by our friends and allies, that it would be an ill return for much official kindness and hospitality shown me, to publish that which after all I have unofficially and indeed almost accidentally learned,” declared one British major to an assembly of officers in London. The speaker, G. V. Fosbery of Her Majesty’s Bengal Staff Corps, was an early proponent of rapid-fire arms. On the subject of the mitrailleuse, he opted for both disclosure and titillation. The guns, he said, actually seemed to fire about 300 shots a minute (not the 444 proposed), and the French had applied themselves to learning how to fight with them. “The weapon is a most formidable one, it is admirably constructed, and equipped for service, and will, I doubt not, produce, if brought into action, effects almost as astonishing as those of the breechloader, and cause a general impatience to be possessed of the new arm.” The officers did not have to wait long for the gun to be revealed. Napoleon III declared war on Prussia in 1870. The huge guns—each weighed nearly three thousand pounds—were towed toward the opening battles hidden under tarps, along with a few Gatlings. In this war, France expected its rapid-fire weapons to be decisive.

When Prussian and French soldiers met in the countryside, the outcomes were inconsistent. There were moments when rapid-fire arms were extremely effective, including a one-sided engagement captured in an account by a correspondent for the London Journal. The writer described the effect on a distant infantry formation that was caught in the open, and suffered almost exactly the effect predicted in the 1868 tests in Vienna:

A column of troops appeared in the valley below us, coming from the right—a mere dark streak upon the white snow; but no one in the battery could tell whether they were friends or foes, and the commander hesitated about opening fire. But now an aide-de-camp came dashing down the hill, with orders for us to pound at them at once—a French journalist having, it seems, discovered them to be enemies when the general and all his staff were as puzzled as ourselves. Rr-rr-a go our Gatlings, the deadly hail of bullets crashes into the thick of them, and slowly back into the woods the dark mass retires, leaving however, a track of black dots upon the white snow behind it.14

This was a minor episode in a war with more than two hundred thousand conventional combatants, and might not be expected to have been either widely witnessed or grist for extrapolation among the tacticians of the time. Another event, however, built on it. At the battle of Mars-la-Tour, in August 1870, about thirty thousand Germans encountered a retreating French force roughly four times their size. The battle would be a rout, with the outnumbered Germans forcing the already disoriented French deeper into indecision and withdrawal, and contributing to the capture of the French emperor and the Prussians’ march on Paris. Lost in the scale of fighting and the political significance of the outcome was the riddling of the Thirty-eighth Prussian Infantry Brigade, which, backed by artillery, attacked a French division and its mitrailleurs. The official report presaged some of the accounts that would later circulate in World War I. It stated:

... that these troops encountered a murderous infantry and machine-gun fire, and were obliged to fall back, their losses “amounting almost to annihilation;” that cavalry attempted to protect the shattered remnant of the brigade, “but that on account of the violent mitrailleuse fire, the leader was unable to deliver home his attack.” The 38th Brigade (5 battalions) went into action with 95 officers, 4,546 men and sustained the loss of 72 officers and 2,542 men killed, wounded and prisoners. The proportion of killed to wounded being as 3 to 4.15

These accounts, for all that they suggested, did not receive wide circulation in the war’s immediate aftermath, in part because two problems emerged in the Franco-Prussian War that the promoters of the mitrailleuse had not anticipated. First, no matter Major Fosbery’s insistence to the contrary, the weapons were so new that the French had not yet matched the technology with tactics covering how to use them. They were usually badly employed. The second problem was that the Prussians arrived on the battlefield equipped with an innovative weapon of their own: Krupp’s breech-loading artillery, which was made not of iron, as most artillery to that point had been, but of steel. The strength of steel made Krupp field pieces more powerful and accurate than any artillery yet seen, and their breech-loading quality meant they could be fired more rapidly and with gun crews at less risk as they reloaded. The French mitrailleurs, often setting up in the open and with scant idea how best to use their newly issued weapons, were easy marks for the Prussian artillerists, who dropped shells on them from beyond the Frenchmen’s range, silencing one team after another. The abandoned weapons littered fields and roads, war trophies that the Prussians and their allies from across the German empire did not want. “The Germans took something like 600 of the French mitrailleurs,” noted one British officer in attendance with the German command, “and never attempted to make the slightest use of them.”16

Victories received more coverage than defeats. Set against the rout of the French army, the Germans’ indifference to the veritable stockpile of rapid-fire guns was the sort of assessment shared among correspondents and military attachés, who focused on instances in which the French weapons failed to work rather than on those in which they did. The Franco-Prussian War, which the French had hoped would usher in the era of battery arms, had the opposite effect. Skepticism, even hostility, to the idea of machine guns soared among the traditionalists, who, in their own view, had been right to resist the weapons from the beginning. Informed of the French military’s fate after putting its faith in rapid-fire arms, a British military committee in 1871 saw that the Gatling could be useful for fort or coastal defense. But it sniffed at the Gatling’s utility in continental warfare: “The committee are decidedly averse to the employment of mitrailleurs for advancing with infantry, or indeed attacking in any form, except when the enemy is provided with an inferior artillery or no artillery at all.”17

By now, however, enough weapons had been shown to enough military officers, and distributed to enough armies and navies, that given time even the most stupid of military men would eventually grasp just how well rapid-fire arms could kill. Notwithstanding the French debacle, a few officers in the British service continued advocating their use. The British government had ordered a Gatling gun for tests in 1869,18 beginning the process that would see British expeditions depart with Gatlings on their vessels and assign them to troops on colonial duty. Gatling and his sales agents kept lobbying, and test guns were subjected to performance trials in Shoeburyness, England. At a range of six hundred yards, in two minutes’ time, a Gatling gun’s bullets all but ventilated its target, peppering it with 522 hits. This was more than the shrapnel holes produced by two British artillery pieces (283 and 142 each) or the impacts in a target fired upon by a Montigny mitrailleuse (127). In three contests between weapons firing from unknown ranges at 134 man-sized dummies spread about a field, the results were similar. Each time, no weapon was able to hit the dummies with the speed or frequency of the Gatling gun.19 William H. Talbott, the company president, declared that the trials were “no ordinary triumph,”20 and was hopeful that the right people had been converted to the company’s cause. “The Gatling gun behaved elegantly,” he wrote. “The Duke of Cambridge said in my presence ‘It was a most powerful and wonderful gun.’”21

And then the Gatling made its British field debut. Troubles broke out on the Gold Coast of West Africa in the 1870s, when the Ashanti, a tribe with ambitions of restoring control of a seaport to keep open trade routes, besieged a British garrison at Elmina, a slave port established by the Portuguese in what is now Ghana. The British had only recently purchased the territory from the Dutch. The fort at Elmina held. But the region remained restive and the English forces present were too thin to do more than defend what they held. Major General Garnet J. Wolseley was appointed commander of the King’s West African Army, and tasked with putting the new protectorate into order and quelling the Ashanti threat. He arrived with his forces in January 1873 and quickly moved columns inland, skirmishing as he went and establishing a forward outpost at the River Prah. The incursion alarmed the Ashanti king, who wanted to know the invaders’ intentions. He sent a messenger to find out. The British built on the example of the editor of the New York Times, and decided to show their hardware. After all, a Gatling gun was intimidating. Especially when fired.

Two days after the arrival of Sir Garnet, an ambassador came down from the king with a letter, inquiring indignantly why the English had attacked the Ashanti troops, and why they had advanced to the Prah. An opportunity was taken to impress him with the nature of English arms. A Gatling gun was placed on the river bank, and its fire directed upon the surface, and the fountain of water which rose as the steady stream of bullets struck its surface astonished, and evidently filled with awe, the Ashanti ambassador.22

The shooting into the River Prah marked the first recorded use of a machine gun in colonial service. It was a simple demonstration of power, a performance not much different from what Gatling and his salesmen had been putting on since his early efforts on Indiana’s statehouse square. Initially it did nothing to change the Ashanti ambassador’s mind. But an artillery captain present with General Wolseley recorded another result. The emissary and the detachment of Ashanti scouts that accompanied him were given quarters in the camp. Not long after the exhibition, the sound of a gunshot woke the encampment at 1:00 A.M. Rushing to the source of the noise, the British soldiers found that one of the Ashanti scouts had placed the muzzle of his own weapon against his throat, pushed his toe against the trigger, and fired the weapon into his head. The Gatling, the captain wrote, had made an impression after all.

It was a strange and ghastly sight, the dead man lying on the guard bed with his brains scattered on the side wall, shown by the lantern light. At first the other messengers expressed ignorance as to the cause of the act, but a court of inquiry was held on the 5th and witnesses were examined. One of the Ashantis then said that the dead man, Quamina Owoosoo by name, had expressed his opinion that all the scouts were going to be killed, and only the messenger allowed to return, and had consequently blown out his brains. Sein Quaku, the messenger, spoke to the same effect, and it appeared that they had all been more or less surprised and astonished at the firing of the Gatling; and that this man, being of rather a cowardly nature, had determined to destroy himself.23

The demonstration firing into the River Prah was only a foretaste of what the weapons could do to a technologically unsophisticated foe. It fell a few months later to Russia, which had pushed the guns ordered by Colonel Gorloff out into soldiers’ hands, to show what could happen when machine guns were fired at men.

In 1873, Czar Alexander II was expanding his empire’s authority over the khanates of Central Asia, trying to bring the defiant hinterlands and overland trade routes under Russian control. His soldiers faced a holdout at the city of Khiva on the banks of the Amu Darya, where the ruling khan, Muhammed Rahim, refused to recognize Russian rule. The khan held a small collection of Russian slaves, which provided the court in Saint Petersburg with all the public-relations material it needed to portray its campaign as a civilizing mission. Columns of imperial troops advanced across the desert toward the city, battling snowstorms in the spring and later parching heat. The khan was defended in part by the Yomud tribe, a group of Turkmen warriors whose horsemen had earned a fierce reputation by defeating Persian troops in battle. Viewed by the Russians as Islamic fanatics, they were the local manifestation of steppe warriors that had preceded Genghis Khan: able riders, brave and bearded, and at home on terrain that taxed the Russians foot soldiers’ enthusiasm for warfighting on the enemy’s land. They were not modernized in any military sense.

One afternoon in mid-1873, a Yomud detachment found a Russian supply train trudging through the steppe near the ruins of Zmukshir, near Turkmenistan’s present border with Uzbekistan. The Russians formed a large square of wagons and braced for attack. A nervous night passed. At about 3:00 A.M. the Yomuds came at last. It was an eerie horse charge in the darkness, punctuated by the horsemen’s shrieks. Inside their square, the Russians had with them two of Colonel Gorloff’s Gatling guns, which had been shipped over the Caspian Sea and dragged across the Karakum desert by pack train. The guns were under the command of an officer, Captain Litvinoff. From the account he left behind, there can be no doubt that the captain had spent considerable time thinking about their use. The Yomuds’ shrieks, meant to be unnerving, only helped him to perfect his detachment’s response. If any one moment marked the battlefield arrival of machine guns, this might have been it.

At the first howls of the enemy, I hastened to form a cover for my guns. I put on the right wing 10 privates, on the left 15 sharpshooters and 12 men of my battery command, with whom I could dispense for the present. These men were also armed with rifles. Leaving thus with the battery guns only the most indispensable men to assist in the firing, I took myself the crank-handle of the first gun, and invited Captain Cachourin to take the handle of the other gun, and enjoined on all my group not to commence the fire before the word of command was given. The guns formed an obtuse angle with each other, as it was necessary to direct them to the precise spot where the shoutings of the enemy were heard, and whence they were approaching us. We had not long to wait. The cries of the Turcomans who had succeeded in breaking through the lines of our detachment and turning their flanks suddenly rose from all sides, and became deafening. Though it was dark we perceived in front of us the galloping masses of the enemy, with uplifted glittering swords. When they approached within about twenty paces, I shouted the command “Fire.” This was followed by a salvo of all the men forming the cover, and a continuous rattle of the two battery guns. In this roar the cries of the enemy at once became weak and then ceased altogether, vanishing as rapidly as they rose. The firing at once stopped, and, as no enemy was visible, I ventured to get a look at the surrounding ground, availing myself of the first light of dawn. At some distance to the right of our square stood the 8th Battalion of the line. Between it and us, at every step, lay prostrated the dead bodies of the Yonoods [Yomuds].24

The newest Gatling guns, meanwhile, were being put to military tests that showed they were capable of feats beyond anything Gatling had conceived for them. On the morning of October 23, 1873, at Fort Madison, Maryland, ten drums of 400 cartridges were fired through a Gatling gun in twelve minutes and twenty-eight seconds. In the afternoon of the same day, another 28,000 rounds were fired at a similar rate. Cartridges were expensive, and Gatling, who worried over costs, had never subjected his guns to such extreme use. So many rounds were fired without rest that the barrels emanated a heat “sufficient to scorch dry white pine.”25 The gun performed nearly flawlessly. The following morning, after the gun had been cleaned, 63,600 more cartridges were fired in less than four hours without so much as cleaning the barrels. Gatling was on hand, and was astounded. On the night of October 26, complaining of a severe headache from the racket of firing, he penned an excited letter to General Love. His meticulous handwriting had abandoned him; he smeared ink repeatedly on the page. The trials, he wrote, “have been a great success.” The 100,000 cartridges had been fired almost without a problem, and only a few—one out of every four of five thousand, he said—had missed fire. “I never expected the gun to be able to produce such results,” he wrote. The officers who had come to watch had departed pleased. It was a triumph. “I can say of a truth,” he wrote. “No trials ever made with the gun before, or will, be equal in value to us.”26

The events in the field and on test ranges in 1873 secured the place of machine guns on the battlefield. The fall of that year marked a peculiar moment in the history of the distribution of rapid-fire arms. Gatling guns had earned their supporters and found their way into armies. But the company that made them continued to struggle, and the records that remain of the company’s internal unease offer insights into unflattering facts behind the Gatling legend. Even as Gatling sought the trust of the Colt Patent Fire Arms Company, his company and its officers were laboring to keep knowledge of their poor finances from reaching their partners’ ears. The company had amassed thirty-one thousand dollars in debt in Indianapolis; Gatling and his colleagues wanted to suppress knowledge of it. They sent letters to one another discussing how to keep the debt in Indiana. It was essential, they agreed, to prevent details of the company’s position from being known in Connecticut, Gatling’s new home and the center of his business. “It would have a bad effect [in Hartford] on the credit and standing of the co.,” Gatling warned.27 The company secretary, Edgar Welles, agreed. These were men with high reputations in Indiana and Connecticut, who had connections in Washington. They were not above deceit. The company would suffer a “black eye,” Welles said, if it were known that it had “a debt of that size and no cash in the treasury.”28 By late 1873, the company had managed to pay down at least four thousand dollars of the debt. But it had done so by juggling its books, receiving financing from outside Indianapolis at a better rate, while trying to collect further on its accounts receivable to cover the balance. Gatling was nervous. But he saw reason for hope. If the collections could be made, he wrote, “and we can sell the guns (or only a part of them) on hand we will be all right financially. Money matters are still tight, and I hope ere long we may have money plenty.”29

There were other pressures as well. Selling machine guns had become a business with a bright future, but the company faced competition as orders arrived. Gatling had been an innovator, and he had devoted himself to the field. Now new rapid-fire guns—not only the mitrailleuse but the Hotchkiss and the Gardner—were in development or coming to market. Moreover, Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor and arms manufacturer, had taken an interest in the Gatling guns in Russia and begun to work on them. He told L. W. Broadwell, Gatling’s main agent in Europe, who handled the Russian account, that he had improved the weapon so much that the Nobel version was a new weapon altogether. Pressured by worries over money and reputation, Gatling’s nerves overcame his customary politeness. “I am often amused at men claiming my invention,” he complained to General Love, “as their own.”30 He added that he was willing to pay “liberally for any valuable change or modification which adds to the effectiveness of the invention; but, such men have no right to take my original invention—the gun itself [and] make some changes into it and call it their gunor their system.i31

At last good news came with the difficulties. At the end of 1873, the navy, after the results of the hundred-thousand-cartridge endurance test, placed an order for fifty guns. The Gatling Gun Company, it seemed, might survive. More promise followed. William W. Belknap, President Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary of war, sought appropriations of $292,600 from the Forty-third Congress to purchase 209 Gatling guns, principally to be used for defense of forts.32 It stood to be the company’s largest order yet, and Gatling passed many months worrying over the fate of the appropriations. As the matter stalled on Capitol Hill, his correspondence grew in irritation. Gatling was not a military man, and his mechanical skills did not extend to tactical matters. He had never served in uniform, much less in war, and knew little of how war was actually fought. He was deeply impatient, and issued instructions to General Love to lobby with all his power not to let the appropriations fail.

It is now a well established fact that the Gatling is the best military arm for certain kinds of service (fort defense etc.) in the world and the nation should have them so the men can in time of peace learn all about how to work them to the best advantage. It is a shame that a nation like Russia should have four times as many Gatling guns as the Un. States—Even poor Turkey has more than this country. Forts are of little use without arms—our forts are weak [and] need being strengthened [and] no way can they be more cheaply [and] better strengthened than by being supplied with Gatlings. It is a criminal neglect of duty for members of Congress to refuse to vote money for the nations [sic] defense [and] when such appropriations are asked for by the Chief of Ordnance and the Secretary of War.33

A desire for profit eclipsed Gatling’s judgment and good form. He suggested pandering to the congressmen of North Carolina, where he had been born. “When they learn the gun is the invention of a native of their own state, they will not fail, I think, to vote for the appropriation.” He proposed planting stories in the press. “If you and Mr. Welles could get some articles published in the Washington or N. York papers, stating the necessity of strengthening the National defence (without making reference to the Gatling gun) it would do much good.”34 As the vote drew near, he grew even more anxious and prepared to have General Love hold a firing demonstration in Washington for members of Congress. The shooting, as he envisioned it, could be held on the public roads. “I got permission from the Mayor of Washington on former occasion to fire the gun against an embankment (formed by the grade of the street) near the Capitol,” he wrote, “so members of Congress would not have far to go to see the firing.”35

The appropriation was denied. Gatling’s bouts of nervousness, however, had not been necessary. Even without a large congressional appropriation, the company’s sales were strong, and its debt had been paid down. Between August 1, 1873, and October 8, 1874, the company recorded sales of 245 guns, and 174 of them were paid for, including 52 for the American army, 26 for the navy, 51 for China, 10 for Brazil, 4 for the Spanish Cuban government and an assortment for New York, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Iowa.36

Step by step, machine guns were creeping into use. The Gatling Gun Company was solvent. Other companies had formed in the United States and Europe and were readying their own guns—the Gardner, the Nordenfelt, and the Hotchkiss—for trials. The guns were in use in colonial and wilderness service and were being fitted to naval vessels. But there remained resistance to issuing them to continental armies. No powerful interest group backed them, and many opponents saw little use for them, in part because of the results seen in the Franco-Prussian War. Commentators were skeptical, or outright against. “The deluded French soldier has ere this found out that the new engine of warfare is not all that he had been taught to believe,” wrote the editorialists of the Saturday Review. The machine gun, they informed London, had seen its value inflated “by diligent Imperial puffing” and could expect little productive martial use. “The instrument will not bring about a revolution in tactics. It will accomplish no real change in the art of war. It is not, in the broad sense of the word, a new arm or a new power.”37 The magazine Nature was more open-minded, but assumed a politely hedged stance. “It does not follow, because it is not good for all purposes, that it may not be useful in some. There are obviously many positions in which it might inflict great damage on an enemy.”38

By 1873, the Gatling Gun Company had sold fewer than one thousand guns, but it had sold enough of them, and there was enough curiosity arising from the accounts of the use of machine guns in battle, that a few officers were taking interest. Some of the officers who made a study of the French and Prussian battlefield reports concluded that the weapons had performed well enough when the French used them wisely, and that machines guns were a weapon with a certain future. A small contingent of officers advocated their use, sometimes to ridicule. One of these officers, Captain Ebenezer Rogers, of London, wrote a letter to Gatling late in the summer of 1873 to say that he had lobbied inside the British military to have the Gatling, which the British military had not yet adopted for widespread use, sent to Africa for the Ashanti War. He enclosed a picture of himself. Gatling liked what he read. Captain Rogers, he said, judging from the enclosed photograph, was “a very fine appearing gentleman.” There was a whiff of opportunity here. “The truth is,” Gatling continued, “Capt. E is doing us a good service in England [and] his efforts should be encouraged.”39

Captain Rogers sent another letter to Gatling, urging the company to push the British services to send six or eight of his guns to the Gold Coast. Gatling balked at this, thinking that a telegraph to the British secretary of war might offend the G. W. Armstrong Company, which had entered a licensing agreement with the Gatling Gun Company in 1869 that allowed the British firm to make Gatling guns for sales in Great Britain for five years. But Gatling was even more taken by the captain. “You will see from the letter,” he told General Love, “that he’s still quite warm to the cause.”40

Rogers was not alone. More proponents were awakening. Lieutenant William Folger, a former officer in the American navy who worked with Gatling, foresaw machine guns becoming so popular and widespread, and a product that would create such an intensive competition between manufacturers, that he urged the Gatling Gun Company to set aside its disputes with Alfred Nobel and its resentment of the other guns and buy them out. He envisioned a super-company, which would manufacture entire systems of automatic arms and dominate global markets. “The world of inventions should be watched, [and] the Nobels’ and Hotchkiss’ should be taken in or bought. This fabrique would at the same time manufacture infantry arms—the best magazine for the next machine gun etc etc [sic] and in a short time become a sort of controlling feature among the arms companies. The Gatling cannot last forever, and the company should already look for something to replace it.”41

The vanguard had preceded Captain Rogers and Lieutenant Folger by only a few years. General Vandenburgh, of the New York militia, had traveled to London and made a presentation to the Royal United Services Institution in 1862, in which he reasoned that a machine that could mass rifle fire would be devastating once brought into use. Major Fosbery, who helped tweak the design of the Montigny mitrailleuse, had presented his own strong opinions in favor of rapid-fire arms to the same organization in 1870. Major Fosbery’s lecture remains important, even if his premature endorsement of French tactics eroded his credibility in officers’ circles. He was peering into the future, more perceptively than his critics. He had misread the French army and not foreseen the effects of Prussian artillery. But his solid mechanical understanding of machine guns—he had handled every gun of the time under consideration for service—was giving him glimpses of World War I.

The major had collected data on the effects that various weapons had on targets at various ranges, including data that showed how much shrapnel actually whistled through the air around a bursting artillery shell.42 He did the math and found that six twelve-pound artillery guns of the time could subject an exposed group of soldiers to about three hundred bits of shrapnel per minute. Six French mitrailleuses, which were proven to be less effective than Gatling guns, would be able to fire 2,664 well-aimed bullets into the same place during the same time. It was a chilling set of numbers. He let his listeners consider it. “What would be the result of the concentrated fire of several batteries of mitrailleurs on an exposed formation I leave it to your judgment to determine from the data I have placed before you,” he told the officers gathered in the room.

Major Fosbery’s logistical math similarly favored the mitrailleuse. It weighed less than half as much as a field artillery piece, needed one-third as many horses to tow along on campaign, and was fired with one-half the number of crew. Major Fosbery’s data had little influence in the British military. He understood why. “The invention in its present state is a comparatively new one,” he said, “and like all new things will find many opponents simply because it is so, whilst the status quo will never want an advocate.”43

With this groundwork laid, Captain Rogers continued the cause.

In his own presentation to the officers’ institution in 1875, after Gatlings had been deployed to Central Asia and to the Gold Coast, he declared that it was “no longer possible to ignore the existence of mitrailleurs with the armies of all countries, every state in Europe having adopted some type of machine gun.” He offered lists: Turkey, Egypt, China, Japan, and Tunis all had Gatlings, and Russia already owned “a formidable array,” with 400 Gatlings organized in units with eight guns apiece. British intelligence, he said, had determined that 328 of the guns were in European Russia, 48 were in the Caucasus, and 24 had been deployed to the empire’s distant reaches in eastern Siberia and Turkestan. The distribution had been swift.44

Captain Rogers predicted the bloody utility of machine guns on colonial duty, where small contingents of European soldiers, sometimes racked by fever, might encounter vast formations of African warriors, unschooled in the tools of modern warfare and not backed by the industrial economies that could produce them. He urged the British officer corps to see the obvious. Machine guns were more than an equalizer. They would allow Britain to strengthen her rule. “Gatlings are peculiarly adapted to colonial defensive operations, as well as for retaliating demonstrations against troublesome neighbours, in countries where our enemies are numerous but ill-armed, where the roads are few and unsuited to wheel traffic, and where the surprise caused by the overwhelming discharge of a battery could carry with it an irresistible moral effect.”45 With a few machine guns, he said, Europeans might use lopsided violence to put down rebellions around the world.

What was not publicly known, as Captain Rogers gave his undiluted endorsement of the future of machine gunnery, was that Richard Gatling and the Gatling Gun Company had been sending him money to encourage his enthusiasm for their arms. Late in 1873, as more correspondence kept coming from Captain Rogers, Gatling and Love had committed to incorporate Captain Rogers into their sales push. “I enclose a letter just rcvd from Capt Rogers,” Gatling told Love. “You must keep in correspondence with him—He is a man that can do us much good.”46 The two men developed a plan to arrange for Captain Rogers’s payment, hoping it might induce him to work even harder on the company’s behalf. General Love, an old army hand who himself had gone on sales trips to Europe with letters of endorsement from President Grant, appears to have suggested it. Gatling approved. “I fully agree with you that we should pay Capt. Rogers for his services rendered,” he wrote. “Mr. Welles will write Capt Rogers today and tell him to draw on Colt’s agency.” The first payment was twenty British pounds. Gatling also told General Love that he would sweeten it with a personal letter containing five more British pounds, which, he said, “will make him feel kindly towards us and inspire him to continue to write in favor of the gun.”47 How much, and how often, Gatling paid Captain Rogers is not known; their full correspondence does not exist. But the captain was a willing recipient and became a veritable promotional service in uniform. “My dear Gatling,” he wrote late in January 1875, as he was preparing the lecture for his fellow officers. “Your letter of the 8th January has just reached me with its unexpected enclosure which however I regard as a substantial recognition of my devotion to the subject at hand and your just estimate of the opportunity afforded by my lecturing at the Royal U.S. Institution.”

Captain Rogers might have made a similar presentation without the money; his attraction to the gun predated the payments. And the British military might have settled on the Gatling as a service arm without his efforts—Gatling guns had outperformed any competitor in several tests. But Dr. Gatling and General Love had invested in quite a performance. The British captain reprised the Gatling gun’s history with relish and read aloud the American translation of Captain Litvinoff’s repulsion of the Yomud charge two years before near Khiva (he even repeated the American mistake, calling the attacking horsemen “Yonoods”). He described Captain Litvinoff walking through the scattered collection of the dead horsemen at dawn, and then he reached a conclusion almost fantastic. “Mark, too, the immediate moral effect produced by this automatic manslayer,” he said. “Its very snarl hushed the war cries of the savage foe. It caused the Yonoods to reel in the saddle and wheel their fiery steeds back once more in the desert; all, that is, who did not bite the dust. I cannot fancy that they returned for wounded men. I cannot fancy that there were any to take away.”48

The officers were skeptical. In the period for comments and questions after Captain Rogers finished, several officers weighed in against him. “It seems to me that Captain Rogers has somewhat exaggerated the importance of this weapon,” said Captain J. F. Owen, of the British army. “The question for us seems to be, are the advantages of the Gatling such as to counterbalance the disadvantages of taking extra impediments into the field?”49

The following summer, the outcome of another distant battle hinted at a possible answer. In 1875, a group of Native American tribes left the reservations the government had designated for them in the western territories along the Rocky Mountains, and tensions between the American government and the region’s native populations soared. President Grant issued an ultimatum: Return to the reservations by the New Year, he said, or be considered an enemy force. Several tribes formed a coalition under a spiritual leader, Sitting Bull, and defied the president’s demand. In spring 1876, a large American contingent set out to subdue the refusing tribes. The United States Seventh Cavalry Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, was among the units assigned.

On June 25, after several weeks in the field, Colonel Custer’s column came upon an Indian encampment on the Rosebud River in territory now part of the state of Montana. Thinking the encampment was small and vulnerable, the colonel decided to attack from two sides. He ordered Major Marcus A. Reno, his senior subordinate, to advance on the camp with three cavalry companies from the south. Colonel Custer planned to swing round to the north with five more companies and trap the Indians between his forces. Two other elements, including his logistics train, were given supporting roles. Major Reno began his advance but quickly discovered the native camp was not as small as he had believed, and occupied by a large number of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. The divided American cavalry was no match. Major Reno withdrew under fire and fell back into the protection of cottonwoods and undergrowth, where the cavalrymen dismounted and fought from the ground. Colonel Custer’s assessment of the size and readiness of the native force had been wrong. He had come upon the camp of Sitting Bull and much of the defiant native coalition, which had many more warriors than the United States Army’s scouts in the field had detected in the weeks before the campaign. Major Reno’s command soon found its position among the cottonwoods untenable; the troops retreated farther, scrambling across the river and leaving behind their dead and more than a dozen of their unwounded fellow soldiers. They dashed pell-mell to the comparative safety of a hilltop. There, to their great fortune, they were met by one of the other detachments of American soldiers. These combined American forces began to dig in, anticipating a large Indian attack. The Indians’ attention, however, had been diverted from the major’s weakened command. It had turned to Colonel Custer.

The regimental commander’s detachment, with slightly more than two hundred cavalrymen, had continued unknowingly toward the river camp. It was quickly enveloped. From their hilltop, Major Reno’s men heard some of the resulting ferocity, including the booms of volley fire during the brief time Colonel Custer’s group managed to fight as a unit and resist. Caught by the Indians in unfamiliar terrain and out of the reach of reinforcements, the soldiers were pinned down, then overrun. It was a highly unusual event. The Indians had been elusive. Combat with them was usually swift and fleeting. In this case, however, a small American contingent had collided with the indigenous warriors during a brief period when they were massed. The battle was over in an hour or less. Every man in the colonel’s command was killed. The victorious Cheyenne and Sioux stripped many of the dead soldiers of their clothes and mutilated and scalped corpses. Precisely what happened between the moment when Major Reno’s detachment galloped away and the time when the last man in Colonel Custer’s contingent fell has never been fully known; no cavalrymen survived to tell. But the disposition of the dead soldiers, discovered when another American unit came upon them the next day, and the available Indian accounts, indicated that Colonel Custer’s group made a wall with the carcasses of dead horses, to little effect, and tried to fight off an Indian charge by the old tactic of volleyed rifle fire. Rifles were not enough. The charge broke the lines. Pandemonium followed, with panicked soldiers dropping weapons and scattering on foot, only to be hacked down by pursuing horsemen.

Colonel Custer, young and intense, had been a public personality. His defeat ignited controversy and an investigation. The investigation found many grounds for criticism of the colonel’s decisions, among them that he had been offered Gatling guns, but had left them behind as he rode off to campaign. Thinking they would slow his movement, he opted to plunge into the Indian territory with cavalry armed with single-shot Model 1873 Springfield rifles, and not any rapid-fire arms. The army had recently issued the Springfields; their slower rate of fire was seen as a means to reduce ammunition consumption in distant territories, where resupply was slow and difficult. Colonel Custer fit the old model of officer who rejected the value of machine-gun fire. His position had merit: The Indians’ superior speed and mobility made it difficult for American units to bring firepower to bear on them, and his Gatlings would have been pulled along on carriages, no doubt slowing his advance as he reconnoitered territory. But at his command, the American government’s plans to bring its material superiority against its enemies were turned upside down. Instead of being able to concentrate fire against a concentrated Indian force, densely packed and in the open, Colonel Custer’s soldiers were armed with rifles designed to help preserve their bullets. Red Horse, a surviving Indian chief, was surprised by the Americans’ weakness. The Sioux, he said, drove Colonel Custer’s isolated cavalrymen:

... into confusion; these soldiers became foolish, many throwing away their guns and raising their hands “Sioux, pity us; take us prisoners.” The Sioux did not take a single soldier prisoner, but killed all of them; none were alive for even a few minutes. Those different soldiers discharged their guns but little. I took a gun and two belts off two dead soldiers; out of one belt, two cartridges were gone; out of the other five.50

No one can say with certitude how the battle might have gone if Colonel Custer had arrived for the fight with rapid-fire weapons. Historians argue both sides, some taking his position.51 If Colonel Custer had brought his Gatlings, he might not have reached Sitting Bull’s encampment that day. But Colonel Henry J. Hunt, the former chief of artillery for the Army of the Potomac, excoriated Custer posthumously for failing to bring the weapons that he had been issued. The Gatlings, he said, would have kept the Sioux and the Cheyenne attackers at bay.

At the Custer massacre Reno reached the neighboring “bluffs” and saved his command ... Custer, when attacked by overwhelming numbers, tried to do so, failed, and his command was exterminated. A battery or half-battery of Gatlings would have been a moving “bluff,” with power to fight and specially fit for keeping “swarms” of Indians in check. The guns would not have “staggered about” from weariness after a forced long march, as Sitting Bull describes our soldiers to have done. Nor would they have lacked the rapidity of fire which that chief claimed. Under their protection our men could have moved about in comparative safety, or at least to cover. The presence of such a battery would have probably saved the command.

Colonel Hunt did not mention the Russian experience three years earlier, moving from oasis to oasis across the Central Asian steppe, where, like the men under Colonel Custer’s command, the Russian and Cossack detachments risked encountering a mobilized indigenous foe on unfamiliar terrain. Outside Khiva, the Russian Gatling guns had stopped a charge cold, as surely as if it had hit a wall. Colonel Custer never had the chance to try. Colonel Hunt fumed at the thought of an officer leaving a Gatling gun battery behind in war. He suggested it was an oversight so galling it could be considered illegal, a dereliction of an officer’s oath to follow the orders of the government that gave him authority and paid his wage.

I know of no good reason why one should have not been on the ground, if they had been kept mounted in accordance with the expressed will of Congress.52

Not all of the American army’s officers failed to use the guns. Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard used a pair of Gatlings in 1877 in the campaign that ultimately forced Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce onto a reservation. The guns were carried in packs on mules, and General Howard’s troops were well enough drilled that they were able to rush them forward when the general caught a band of retreating Indians crossing the Clearwater River near Kamiah, in what is now Idaho. “The whole force was put to a brisk run to the river crossing,” wrote Thomas A. Sutherland, a newspaper correspondent covering the campaign. “General Howard with Captain Jackson was the first to reach the destination, as the road taken by Whipple was more circuitous. The Gatling gun was hurried into position and under command of Captain Wilkinson did good work in driving the Indian sharpshooters from their different breastworks on the mountains opposite.”53

That encounter was not on the order of what Colonel Custer had faced. It fell to British soldiers to show what an outnumbered force, equipped with modern weapons, might do when faced with a native charge. In spite of high-ranking objections, British curiosity about Gatling’s weapons had been significant enough that machine guns were being sent out with expeditions and units on colonial duty. Their arrival coincided with fresh troubles in the crown’s empire. When the British invaded Zululand in 1879 with a large force, they brought with them several Gatlings, including the British army’s first Gatling battery, which was under command of J. F. Owen, the officer who had criticized Captain Rogers’s enthusiasm for machine guns four years before in London. Owen had been promoted to major, and his guns were used in skirmishes and several battles. Two were present for the war’s final large battle, at Ulundi.

In early July, the British moved toward Ulundi, the Zulu capital, and set up camp nearby. The British commander, Frederic Thesiger, Lord Chelmsford, sent a message demanding that the Zulu king surrender the artillery pieces and roughly one thousand rifles that his fighters had captured after a stinging defeat of the British earlier in the year at Isandlwana. The king did not reply, and British watering parties came under fire. On the morning of July 4, Lord Chelmsford ordered his roughly five thousand troops to battle. His units marched across the Mahlabathini plain, passing the chopped-up corpses of their comrades who had been killed in skirmishes the previous day. As they drew near the huts of the seat of government, which were ahead behind high grass, they were entering what in any other circumstance but this—a technological mismatch of drilled European troops with modern weapons facing indigenous Africans with shields and spears—would have been an inescapable trap, much like what Colonel Custer had faced three years before. The British walked into an encirclement, outnumbered several times.

As the mounted men scrambled out of the donga, the inGobama-khosi regiment rose from the midst of the grass and, as if on signal, other regiments appeared at wide intervals on either side. The silent black masses parted the waving grass, displayed their shields and began to move forward, joining the regiments coming down from the heights as they reached them, until the center of the basin was ringed with dark groupings.54

The British formed a square and watched, tightening ranks and readying weapons. The Zulu defenders, estimated to be twenty thousand men, merged and stamped their feet, harassed lightly by the Seventeenth Lancers, a unit of British cavalrymen, who opened fire and peppered the walls of Zulu warriors as their horses cantered in the shrinking open space. The Lancers were outnumbered by thousands. The enclosing circle grew smaller. The British cavalry taunted the Zulus, but they knew, like Colonel Custer’s men, that they would have small chance in a head-to-head fight. They withdrew within the square as the larger clash became imminent. The Zulus advanced slowly until the British artillery opened fire. Then the Zulus broke forward at a run.

For all of his professions of humanitarianism and assurances that machine guns could serve as such a powerful deterrent that they would make wars safe, Richard Gatling had never addressed this.

The battalion opened fire with rifle fire and the rattling bursts from the Gatling guns stitched the crashing volleys together. Regiment after regiment surged forward, and the lines began to melt away in the hail of bullets scything the slopes. Succeeding waves charged over the contorted bodies that littered the grass, and shining faces of the warriors, with gleaming eyes and set teeth, bobbed up and down over the rims of their shields. Raw courage had brought them that far, but bravery alone could not force a way through the crescendo of fire, and the warriors sank to their knees to crash full length in the dust or tumble head over heels in mid-stride. Not a Zulu reached within thirty yards of the British lines.55

The Gatling guns had jammed several times, but were still effective. A charge by the Zulu reserve was broken, and then Lord Chelmsford ordered the cavalry back out, to pursue. The Seventeenth Lancers cheered as they bore down on their retreating victims, and cut them with lances and swords. The Zulu charges had been broken in thirty minutes. Most of the mopping up was completed within the hour. Several of the British soldiers had brought champagne on the march, and now, with clusters of African bodies glistening on the field, and the British killing the wounded in vengeance for past defeats, some men shared warm toasts. Lord Chelmsford ordered Ulundi to be set afire. His command had left its camp before 7:00 A.M. It faced the Zulu charge at 9:00 A.M. “Ulundi was burning at noon,” he telegraphed home.56 The British, with their superior firepower, had completed the destruction of the Zulu nation in a morning, though they were on enemy terrain and outnumbered roughly four to one. One British officer and ten enlisted men were killed.57 The rout had reached proportions almost absurd, but was also demonstrative of what rapid-fire weapons could do when applied to people who did not have them, or who were ordered in the open by commanders who did not appreciate how machine gunnery worked. Colonel Custer had left his guns behind. The killing at Ulundi had shown their utility in what one officer called “wars with people who wear not trousers.”58 They would not be left behind anymore.

Still the dispute over the utility of rapid fire raged back at home. At the Royal United Services Institution in London not long after Lord Chelmsford returned to England, another American arms designer, William Gardner, spoke on the merits of machine guns in conventional battle. Gardner had served as a captain in the Union Army during the Civil War, and knew his way around a battlefield. In 1874, he had developed hand-cranked weapons, available in time with two to five barrels arranged in a row, like organ pipes. His guns competed with Gatling’s better-known models. Unlike Gatling, Gardner had drawn from his military experience and understanding of tactics to canvass the literature and develop practical theories for machine-gun use. In his lecture in London, he laid out proposals for machine gunnery that would in time become standard practice for infantrymen in the field, including using the guns from a distance against an enemy to fix him in place while other soldiers advanced. And he was realistic, avoiding Captain Rogers’s breathless hyperbole and conceding that the problem of unwanted stoppages was critical. Jamming had been attributed in the main to poorly manufactured European cartridges, which were not sturdy enough to withstand the forces of extraction from a gun firing at a high rate of speed, and often were bent or broken in place, stopping firing altogether. But Gardner’s observation was also a veiled attack on his product’s main rival, the Gatling gun, and lingering British concerns about its reliability. “I prefer a pair of walking boots to a balking horse,” he said, “and a club to a machine gun very liable to jam.”59

After his lecture, Gardner faced the doubters. Lieutenant General Charles Pyndar Beauchamp Walker, who had traveled with the crown prince of Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War and assimilated the Prussian assessment of rapid-fire arms, did not contain his contempt. “The introduction of this engine into the French armament was, as I have already expressed myself, a gigantic swindle,” he said. “The results have been in no way commensurate with the expectation formed, and although the weapon is probably capable of improvement and certainly very formidable under certain conditions, I do not think it will ever take the place which its upholders expect.”

The general listed objections, including that the French guns often fell out of use because they malfunctioned. He cannily echoed Gardner’s own statement about a club, to suggest, indirectly but pointedly, that perhaps the infantry would be better armed with blackthorn mallets. “I am reminded of the old Irish saying which I heard a great many years ago, when first in that country, that the ‘shillalah never missed fire,’” he said. “The Irishman prefers a stick to any other weapon; there is no jamming there.”60

Lord Chelmsford, who had led the forces in the Zulu War, and knew something about a machine gun’s value, intervened politely. But as an officer with colonial experience and not a presumed expert in continental warfare like General Walker, he treaded carefully. “I think myself that machine-guns have been rather harshly judged,” he offered. “I cannot help but thinking there is a future for these machine-guns, and I think there is a future for them not as employed with artillery, but as employed with infantry. I can safely say, at all events in such wars as we have to carry on in South Africa, that machine-guns attached to infantry, if they are of simple and reliable nature, carrying the same ammunition as the infantry arm, would be of inestimable value.”61

Gardner, like Gatling, was able to handle rejection. He showed no sign of offense. By this time he had designed multiple models of his machine guns and was breaking into markets. His guns had performed admirably at recent British tests, and one version from his line had been accepted for service in the British navy. An exhibition of them was available in the building. Soon his guns were to go ashore in landing parties in Africa, and meet indigenous charges, too. He opened his reply with polite confidence. “I have only some crude ideas to express, and I express them in a crude way,” he said. “But I believe in what I say.”

Gatling knew about Gardner. In what resembled turf encroachment, Gardner was having his weapons manufactured at a Pratt & Whitney factory in Hartford, not far from the Colt factory where Gatlings were made. And Gardner’s line of guns was enjoying warm press coverage and satisfying reviews in competitive military trials. Gatling had market share to preserve. He wanted to put Gardner and the others in their place. The field was getting ever more crowded. Dr. James H. McLean, a fraud who had passed himself off as an inventor in Saint Louis, was even echoing Gatling’s own theories of world peace through awesome firepower and offering an entire range of quick-firing weapons, with catchy names designed to attract sales: the General Sherman, the Vixen, the Annihilator, and, with a wink, the Lady McLean.62 The Gatling gun risked losing ground. The aging inventor took out newspaper advertisements, calling his would-be rival out.

Many articles have recently appeared in the press, claiming the superior advantages of the Gardner and other machine guns over the Gatling gun.

In order to decide which is the best gun, the undersigned offers to fire his gun (the Gatling) against any other gun, on the following wagers, viz:

First, $500 that the Gatling can fire more shots in a given time, say one minute.

Second, $500 that the Gatling can give more hits on a target, firing, say, one minute—at a range of 800 or 1000 yards.

The winner will contribute the money won to some charitable object.

The time and place to be mutually agreed upon.

R. J. Gatling

Of Hartford, Conn.63

The advertisement appeared in 1881. In a similar advertisement published a few weeks later in England, Gatling added a line suggesting the depth of his annoyance. “The trials of the above character,” it read, “will do more to determine the efficiency of the guns than newspaper articles so cleverly written.”64

Twenty years after designing the first Gatling gun, Gatling was white-haired and wealthy, an elder statesman in the machine-gun trade whose name was known round the land. He wanted his life’s most successful work to be above all challengers. It was a sentiment that was unnecessary in the short term, and pointless in the long.

In the short term, the British were still taking his weapon on colonial campaigns, mounting them on the seagoing vessels, boats, outposts, and armored trains. The problems with ammunition used by European forces had been largely solved, and there would be little more talk of jams. The naysayers in officers’ circles could block their armies from purchasing Gatling guns for continental service. But there were other markets—for navies, for police forces, for yachts, for mines, and for penitentiaries—all of which his company would try to tap. And yet his dream of assigning the Gatling to the world’s ground forces was soon to end. Gatling had spent two decades designing and marketing rapid-fire arms. Through official indifference and hostility, and the perplexity of friends, he had set the stage for machine guns. And Hiram Maxim was about to take it.

i The underlined words retain the underlines in Gatling’s handwriting. The [and] replaces an addition sign.

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