Bedside Manner: Not for the Gun-Shy

Tracing the origins of the Gatling gun

Bedside Manner: Not for the Gun-Shy

It seems like the American inspirational parable. A farm boy follows his dreams to the Big City and works through hardships until he makes his million-dollar idea come true, gets rich and gets famous.

That’s the story of Richard Jordan Gatling (1818-1903), a North Carolina farmer’s son with no formal training who would figure out a centuries-old dream of inventors, including Leonardo da Vinci, and change the world. But Gatling invented the world’s first reliable machine gun, not something the U.S. is likely to celebrate these days.

“When it comes to guns, America has a historical blind spot,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Keller in her 2008 book, Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel (Viking Adult). I’ll have to admit that I grabbed her book because of the instantly recognizable Gatling gun on the cover. It looks menacing even on paper. You almost expect the bearded Union solider seated behind the machine to start working the hand crank, sending a scythe of bullets from its rotating cluster of 10 barrels, mowing down everything it its path.

Keller hypothesizes that Gatling (and other firearms inventors) are lost to history by the uncomfortable paradox that “military might is an essential part of the American dream.” We like to believe that we are a nation of thinkers, not fighters. Gatling’s story seems very American.

Born in rural North Carolina in 1818, Gatling’s life parallels the rocket-like growth of our young country during industrialization, war and westward expansion. From the family farm, he would go west to St. Louis in 1844 and then Indianapolis in 1851 where he became a successful businessman and married a prominent physician’s daughter with connections to the Indiana governor.

And Gatling apparently did everything in the Land of the Second Chance. He was a farmer, teacher, merchant, medical student, salesman and successful inventor before he perfected the machine gun in 1862 for the noblest of reasons: to shorten wars and save lives.

But Gatling didn’t get the distinction of creating a war-ending weapon. Due to a combination of politics, military culture and gun shortages, the U.S. Army didn’t officially adopt the Gatling gun until 1866. By then, Gatling was selling his invention around the world.

In the late 1800s, Gatling was as celebrated and famous as Henry Ford or Bill Gates, according to Keller. During the rise of mass market publications, his invention would often appear on the cover of Scientific American and he would be interviewed for national feature stories. His invention was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and Gatling was celebrated alongside Thomas Edison.

He would claim much later in his life that the Gatling gun was not his life’s greatest work. He made his first fortune inventing farm implements and had dozens of other patents, including a bicycle, flush toilet, and a device to control wagon reins. (Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47, told an interviewer in 2002 that he wished he had invented a lawnmower.)

Military historian Alexander Rose’s 2008 book American Rifle is a dense book with plenty of figures and footnotes; one page includes a half-page footnote summarizing a historical hit rates per shots fired. The book traces the development of the rifle from George Washington’s muzzle-loader to tomorrow’s battlefield rifle. I have only reached the 1870s, when the debate in the U.S. military was between accuracy and firepower, single-shot muzzle-loaders or breech-loading repeating rifles.

I don’t think there’s much here for a casual reader, but I discovered some interesting facts. Lancaster County, Penn., home to my mother’s family, was once the gunsmithing capital of the U.S. Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, got the first contract to make firearms for the U.S. government in 1789. John H. Hall pioneered mass production with interchangeable parts to make rifles in 1825. Abraham Lincoln personally tested guns on the White House lawn during the Civil War. Oliver Winchester, whose name would later become synonymous with the must-have rifle of the American Frontier, made his fortune initially selling shirts.

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More by Mike Crissey
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Gatling gun, Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel, Julia Keller, American Rifle, Alexander Rose

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