The Gatling Gun was an early rapid-firing weapon, or machine gun, invented by Richard J. Gatling. Gatling was a physician and real estate broker who settled in Indianapolis in 1854. His early inventions included a rice-sowing machine, a wheat drill, and a steam plow, the latter developed in 1857.

Members of Battery A of the Indianapolis Light Artillery with a Gatling Gun, ca. 1890 Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

In November 1861, Gatling attended an Indianapolis exhibition at which a Mr. Hatch of Ohio demonstrated a breech-loading cannon. It was made like a revolver and fired 25 shots per minute. In a few weeks, Gatling developed a hand-cranked, rapid-fire weapon with 10 rotating barrels capable of firing over 250 shots per minute. (Eventually, the standard firing rate of the Gatling gun was improved to about 1,000 rounds per minute.) In November 1862, Gatling received U.S. Patent No. 36,836 for his weapon. Two sites later claimed to be the location where the first Gatling gun was manufactured: Gatling’s Indianapolis factory and a metalsmith shop in Freeport, Shelby County.

The U.S. Navy adopted the gun in 1862, placing it aboard several federal gunboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The U.S. Army, however, experienced mechanical problems with its models and did not adopt the weapon until 1866. The Gatling gun was the military’s principal rapid-firing weapon for more than 40 years, although the patent was sold to the Colt Company of Hartford, Connecticut, in the mid-1870s. The gun gave one of its greatest performances on July 1, 1898, when it provided support for the infantry charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American war in Cuba.

The Murat Gatling Gun Squad posing on the front steps of the Indiana State Capitol, ca. 1920 Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

Manufacturers modified and greatly improved Gatling’s original rapid-firing technique, but the principle never changed. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army used a cannon (in 20mm and 30mm calibers) called the “Vulcan Automatic Gun.” It utilized six rotating barrels and operated on the order of the original gun. The Air Force incorporated a similar design in one of its fighter aircraft used during the Persian Gulf War.

The M134 Minigun is another descendant of the Gatling Gun. General Electic designed the M134 Minigun, which is a 7.62x51mm six-barrel rotary machine gun, in 1960. Used by the U.S. military, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops, and the military forces of many other countries throughout the world, the M134 has a rate of fire of 2,000 to 6,000 rounds per minute. The U.S. began using this high-rate-of-fire weapon in Vietnam and has continued to use it during the Iraq War and the Operation Restore Hope War in Afganistan.

Revised June 2021

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