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November 8, 2023

Colt Gatling Gun Evolution

By Joe Engesser

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Few weapons in history are as famous or as impressive as the Colt Gatling Gun. Richard Gatling’s rapid-fire, multi-barrel invention was originally designed in the optimistic hope of decreasing the number of wartime deaths caused by infectious diseases by reducing the need for large military forces.

A rare and historic Colt U.S. Model 1897 Gatling gun with an iron carriage with markings commemorating the Battle of San Juan Hill, Theodore Roosevelt's Inauguration, and other historical events. Available this December.

Tacticians came to instead view the Gatling gun and its machine gun successors as force multipliers that would significantly change the face of warfare and set the stage for the industrial-scale firepower unleashed during World War 1.

The Gardner gun, the Nordenfelt gun, and the Gatling gun were the three most prominent machine gun predecessors.

Due to their rarity, history, and exquisite engineering, every surviving Gatling gun has become a coveted piece for museums and private collections, and Rock Island Auction Company’s December 8 - 10 Premier Firearms Auction in Bedford, Texas offers three of these exceptional weapons.

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Richard Gatling

Richard Gatling was not just one of 19th century America’s greatest gun inventors, but an accomplished designer all around. Gatling’s work included improvements to agriculture equipment and new designs for steamboat technology. Little more than a decade after receiving a medical degree from Ohio Medical College, Dr. Gatling turned his attention to the grim science of warfare.

An evolution of Richard Gatling's original 1862 design, the 1883 Gatling integrates a full brass housing from the barrel group, which protects the mechanism from debris, sea spray, and other hazards. Available this December.

The early months of the American Civil War resulted in shocking casualty numbers. Dr. Gatling set out to invent a gun that could help reduce the number of men on the battlefield and in turn diminish the devastating losses suffered from disease in the camps. This new multi-barrel, crank-operated gun would, Gatling hoped, with its rapidity of fire, “enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would…supersede the necessity of large armies.”

Gatling Gun Cost

When the Gatling gun was invented in 1862, military strategists were uncertain how to best utilize this new killing machine on the battlefield. Union bureaucrats were skeptical of many new firearms breakthroughs that occurred during the Civil War.

An exceptional Colt U.S. Navy Mark II Model 1900 Gatling gun with carriage. Available this December.

Despite the Gatling gun’s successful early trials, Brigadier-General James Ripley, the Union Chief of Ordnance, balked at the Gatling gun's price tag. Some in the media were more forgiving.

“One of these guns, with its appendages added, costs $1,500,” the Indianapolis Evening Gazette observed in 1862. “A regiment of men ready for the field costs about $50,000, and it takes $150,000 to keep a regiment in service twelve months. It will be seen … that it would be a great economy to use the Gatling gun.”

A Modern Battery Gun Co. reproduction of a Model 1862 Gatling Gun available this December. Includes an original period "Manual of the Gatling Battery Gun." Richard Gatling's Model 1862 was the first step in a long line of firearm innovations that eventually led to modern-day machine guns.

For perspective, the cost of artillery was significantly cheaper than the Gatling gun. Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War by Hazlett, Olmstead, and Parks cite the approximate cost for a 10-pound Parrott Gun at $198, a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle at $359, and a 12-pound Napoleon cannon at $822. Given the Gatling gun’s high cost and the confusion as to how the new weapon would fit in with the conventional tactics of the day, the Union’s reluctance to adopt Gatling’s invention isn’t surprising.

An extraordinarily rare 1863 dated Confederate Columbus Arsenal bronze 9-Pounder sold for $661,250 in RIAC's May 2021 Premier Firearms Auction.

The Gatling Gun in Combat

General Benjamin Butler purchased eight of Gatling’s “Battery Guns” out of his own pocket and positioned them to defend his trenches during the brutal Siege of Petersburg. Other Gatling guns were privately purchased for use on Union gunboats, and by 1866 the U.S. Army officially adopted Gatling’s invention.

The Gatling gun helped change the face of warfare, but the design faced its share of skeptics along the way.

Richard Gatling’s Model 1862 was the first step in a long line of innovations for the Gatling gun design. Gatling guns could be fitted to a variety of carriages and mounts and were especially suited for naval service. As an anti-infantry weapon in the field, military strategists used the Gatling gun to repel mass attacks and provide suppressing fire before a major charging maneuver.

A Colt Model 1897 Gatling gun with an iron carriage, available this December. Often called a "hand-cranked machine gun", the Gatling gun revolutionized warfare.

The Gatling gun also became an ideal crowd control weapon and was deployed against strikers and protestors during the Labor Wars of late 19th century America. According to The Gatling Gun by Wahl and Toppel, “Time and again, during its long history, the Gatling Gun proved itself a 'super riot gun'-a little of its characteristic 'music' or just the sight of its menacing multiple muzzles was usually enough to discourage a mob.”

Rise of the Gat

Colt’s Patented Firearms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut produced all Gatling guns for the domestic U.S. market from 1866 to 1903 and continuously improved and experimented with the platform. The original Gatling gun design could fire 200 rounds per minute, for example, but was quickly surpassed by later iterations of the Gatling model, which were eventually capable of achieving firing rates as high as 1,500 rounds per minute.

One of only 20 Model 1900 Mark II Gatling guns issued to the U.S. Navy, this handsome example of the platform is one of the rarest Gatling gun models extant. Available this December.

Over its four decades of service, the Colt Gatling gun design also saw several different cartridge feed systems in order to increase reliability and firing rate. The first Gatling gun models had simple hopper feeds with limited capacity. Cartridges could be placed in tinned sheet-iron boxes that lacked springs and followers, serving only to guide the ammunition into the hopper to assist in loading. The 1871 pattern Colt Gatling gun introduced an early box magazine with a retaining flap held closed by a spring catch, and one year later the Gatling Gun Company patented the Broadwell drum.

This Furr Miniature Model 1874 Gatling gun and carriage includes a Broadwell style magazine. Available this December.

Gatling Feeder Technology

The Broadwell drum was invented in 1872 by Lewis Wells Broadwell, a European sales agent for the Gatling Gun Company. This pioneering drum magazine used multiple stacks of cartridges all pointed towards the center and was set up for rapid manual switching from one stack to the other allowing for hundreds of rounds to be fired without reloading.

An extremely rare W.G. Armstrong & Co. British Gatling gun and carriage with Broadwell drum sold in 2019 for $218,500 with Rock Island Auction Company.

Nearly a decade later, Lucien Bruce patented a system for the Gatling gun called the Bruce Feed, a piece of Gatling feeder technology using vertical magazines that retained many of the advantages of the Broadwell drum and could be kept topped off while the gun was still in use.

The Colt U.S. Navy Mark II Model 1900 Gatling Gun with carriage employs a Bruce feed magazine system. Available this December.

All of the aforementioned Gatling feeder systems relied on gravity, which worked well enough when the Gatling gun was resting on a level surface. Gravity-fed Gatling guns experienced higher malfunction rates when the ground was markedly uneven, however. An Australian engineer and explosives expert named James G. Accles came up with an innovative solution.

Accles Positive Feed Drum

The Accles drum was the most advanced piece of Gatling feeder technology manufactured for the Gatling gun platform. Holding 104 rounds of .45-.70 ammunition, the donut-shaped Accles drum had an onboard sprocket/rotor driven by the Gatling gun crank which allowed for higher and more consistent rates of fire than the gravity-fed magazines of earlier models.

The Accles positive feed magazine, Patent No. 290622, dated 18 December 1883, was one of the first snail-style drum magazines. Available this December.

One of the first snail-style drums, cartridges loaded into the brass Accles drum were pushed along a spiral track and into the Gatling feed by a driver geared to the gun’s rotating barrels.

While a remarkable magazine design when clean, the Accles drum proved far too fragile for sustained field use. The delicate system could also fail if it was dented by mishandling or struck by enemy fire, and the military soon retired the Accles drum in favor of the more durable Bruce feed system.

A desirable Furr 1/3 scale Colt Gatling gun 1883 reproduction with a carriage and an Accles pattern magazine. Available this December.

Colt Gatling Gun Evolution

Similar to its 1877 Bulldog sibling, the 1883 Colt Gatling gun integrated a full brass housing from the barrel group, which protected the mechanism from debris, sea spray, and other hazards. The gun became popular with the U.S. Navy as a result.

A U.S. Army Colt Model 1877 Bulldog Gatling gun from the George Moller Collection, one of 17 purchased by the American military, sold for $345,000 in Rock Island Auction Company's December 2021 Premier Auction.

The Gatling was chambered in a number of different rounds as cartridge technology evolved, including .45-70 and the new .30 Army smokeless. Springfield Armory converted some Gatling guns to use the .30-03 round, then its famous .30-06 follow-up that was standardized for the Springfield 1903 rifle.

The Gatling gun employed numerous cartridge types over its 45 year development history. This impressive Union Metallic Cartridge Co. cartridge display board includes cartridges ranging from the tiny BB cap up to Gatling rounds like the .45-70. Available this December.

The Gatling gun served in Europe, Africa, Asia, and across the Americas. The United States deployed the weapon in China, Panama, Haiti, and perhaps most famously during the Spanish-American War, when four M1895 mounted on carriages similar to the example below provided support for Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Buffalo Soldiers during the Battle of San Juan Hill.

This Colt U.S. Model 1897 Gatling gun with an iron carriage features a ten-barrel cluster, and the modern-made replacement barrels are chambered in rimmed .30 Army. Available this December.

Gatling Gun Competitors

The Gatling gun faced several competitors in the years after its introduction, including a multi-barreled volley gun designed by Swedish inventor Helge Palmcrantz at the end of the 1860s. These "Nordenfelt machine guns" were later named for the weapon's financier, Thorsten Nordenfelt, a Swedish steel producer and banker operating out of London.

Nordenfelt guns were a crank-operated platform produced in a number of barrel configurations and calibers. These unique weapons were tested and adopted by both the Swedish Army and the British Royal Navy, serving alongside the Gatling gun and the Gardner gun, another crank-operated machine gun predecessor with a fascinating history.

An exceptionally rare Nordenfelt 10-barrel volley gun with carriage. Available this December.

Invented in 1874 by William Gardner, a Civil War Union Army captain,  the Gardner gun brought the world another step closer to the machine guns that defined the early 20th century. Gardner guns were designed with one or two barrels. These unique weapons were fed with gravity-driven magazines and operated by hand turning a crank that moved bolts back and forth to fire the action as well as extract the spent case. This reciprocating motion system is used in many of today's machine guns.

The 1882 Gardner gun is a key firearm in the evolutionary development of the machine gun and is missing from even the most advanced public or private collections. Available this December.

Although the U.S. Navy purchased a limited number, the U.S. Army was not interested and never adapted the Gardner gun, preferring the Gatling gun to fulfill current needs. Eventually, the Gardner gun gained the attention of the British government which ordered it for all branches of their military and purchased the manufacturing rights, and both the Netherlands and Denmark purchased some Garner guns as well.

The Gatling Gun vs the Machine Gun

Gatling guns demonstrated the utility of high-volume firepower on the battlefield and forever changed the course of warfare. The United States and Britain continued to employ multiple versions of the Gatling gun into the early 20th century, when the first true recoil-based machine guns like the Maxim design quickly gained traction.

A U.S. Inspected Colt Model 1883 Gatling gun with pedestal. Available this December.

Where Gatling guns of the era required a hand crank to rotate the barrels into battery and fire, machine guns like the Maxim gun were designed to use the energy of recoil to mechanically cycle themselves. Although the Gatling gun design was declared obsolete before the outbreak of WW1, its story was far from finished.

This Spandau Maxim MG08/15 machine gun sold for $14,100 in August of 2022 at RIAC.

The Gatling Gun Today

The Gatling gun is a powerful platform, even more so when paired with a motor. In 1890, the Crocker-Wheeler Motor Company of New York demonstrated an electric Gatling gun to the U.S. Navy. The prototype fit an 80 volt motor with a current of 3 to 3.5 amps to a Gatling gun equipped with an Accles feed system and a clutch that allowed the gun to be operated either electrically or manually. Even when geared down, the gun could fire at a blazing rate of 1,500 rounds per minute.

The Crocker-Wheeler electric Gatling gun fitted with an Accles positive feed drum.

Though the Crocker-Wheeler version of the electric Gatling gun was never adopted, the concept saw a resurgence after WW2 with the M61 Vulcan, the M134 Minigun, and the A-10 Warthog fighter’s Gau-8/A Gatling-type seven-barrel cannon. The GAU-8/A Avenger cannon and its naval cousin, the Phalanx Close in Weapons System (CIWS) are widely used by the U.S. military, demonstrating the adaptability of the design Dr. Richard Gatling developed 160 years ago.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Karl Furr and Paul Kuhni produced functional replicas of the Gatling gun. Today, companies like U.S. Armament Corp and Battery Gun Co. continue that tradition, and RIAC's December auction includes at least one example from each of these manufacturers.

Manufactured by the Battery Gun Co. of Metamora, Michigan, as a full-scale, fully functional Gatling gun, this modern, fully-functional reproduction is constructed with a brass body and an array of blued barrels with blued support arms. Intended for use with the included .45 caliber reloadable steel percussion inserts. Available this December.

Gatling Gun for Sale

Despite their relatively long production period, only around 1,300 Gatling guns were manufactured by Colt across all models. Many Gatling guns saw hard service, and others were melted down for scrap during WW1, so finding surviving Gatling guns for sale today is a true rarity. The three Gatling gun examples offered in Rock Island Auction Company’s December 8 - 10 Premier Firearms Auction demonstrate the evolution of this fantastic collecting platform.

A Model 1897 Gatling Gun with an iron carriage. Available this December.

Unique designs like the Gatling gun carry fascinating histories, and you can subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos each week that dive deeper into the stories behind your favorite firearms. From pieces on the Montigny Mitrailleuse volley gun, the Hotchkiss revolving cannon, and the development of flying battery artillery, we thoroughly explore the history of the gun and the men who pushed the boundaries of firearms technology and shaped our world today.

A fine U.S. Westinghouse Model 1917 Browning water cooled machine gun with tripod and accessories. Available this December.

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