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What is a Gatling Gun?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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The Gatling Gun, developed by Richard Jordan Gatling in 1862, was an early type of machine gun. It integrated multiple barrels which could be rotated, keeping up a continuous stream of fire. With some refinement, the design of the Gatling Gun was capable of shooting 3,000 rounds per minute, an impressive accomplishment. More sophisticated machine guns were developed in the 1880s, and the Gatling Gun was largely replaced on the field by less ungainly models. However, the multiple barrel design is still used on anti-aircraft weapons, and on vehicle mounted artillery.

Before the development of self-contained cartridges, the Gatling Gun could not have existed. In the mid-1800s, arms manufacturers started to combine bullets and gunpowder in one neat cartridge, which was much easier and less messy to load. Previously, soldiers had to load gunpowder and then bullets, a painstaking process which took up precious time on the battlefield.

Gatling's invention took advantage of this advancement in firearms technology. He designed a very large piece of field artillery which was designed to be rolled around on wheels. A central hub was used to mount multiple gun barrels. As the barrels of the Gatling Gun were rotated, they fired, expelling the cartridge casing and allowing a fresh cartridge to drop in from a gravity fed hopper. The Gatling Gun was hand cranked, allowing the soldier to control the rate of fire.

Several historians have suggested that Gatling developed the weapon to make war so terrible that nations would find other ways of solving their problems. Gatling himself, however, clearly felt otherwise. In a letter to the United States marketing the Gatling Gun during the Civil War, Gatling pointed out that the weapon would be highly effective against the enemy. Gatling was a frustrated inventor, who often just missed the ability to patent products. His gun represented a substantial source of potential income.

The mechanized firing process planted the seeds of the idea for a true machine gun in the minds of other inventors. More lightweight and reliable machine guns were developed, but the multiple barrel design still had advantages. A single barreled machine gun can overheat and fail. Multiple barrels, like those in a Gatling Gun, allow a soldier to shoot large numbers of bullets without overheating the barrel, keeping up a continuous and steady rate of fire. The design was adopted for aircraft mounted weapons in the twentieth century, although these weapons are cranked with electric motors, rather than by hand. These modern Gatling Guns are commonly known as Vulcans.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By robert5 — On Nov 17, 2008

They have been able to upgrade and improve upon the gatling gun. if you have time there are some great clips about the dillion gatling gun and other high rate of fire weapons on future weapons. their is also a machine gun that can fire 1 million rounds per minute, it is quite a sight to see when it is shot!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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