Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Gatling Gun -- Steampunk Weaponry for Real

Doctor Richard Gatling's patent drawing
In 1861, Doctor Richard Gatling invented a six-barreled machine gun capable of firing 200 rounds per minute. This "Gatling gun," as it would be known, was designed with the express purpose of decreasing the number of men on the battlefield. In creating it, Dr. Gatling hoped that it would reduce the amount of bloodshed in war and eventually even end war all together. His thought was that the carnage his weapons wreaked would make armies reconsider before they marched to war. Gatling's own words written nearly two decades after the invention of the weapon bear this out.
Hartford, June 15th, 1877
My Dear Friend.
        It may be interesting to you to know how I came to invent the gun which bears my name; I will tell you: In 1861, during the opening events of the war, (residing at that time in Indianapolis, md.,) I witnessed almost daily the departure of troops to the front and the return of the wounded, sick, and dead. The most of the latter lost their lives, not in battle, but by sickness and exposure incident to the service. It occurred to me if I could invent a machine--a gun-- which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be greatly diminished. I thought over the subject and finally this idea took practical form in the invention of the Gatling Gun.
Yours truly,
R.J. Gatling
As history has proven, however, Dr. Gatling was way off the mark.

The original Gatling gun models saw use in dozens of wars around the world, from the Spanish-American War of 1898 to the colonial conflicts in Africa and other undeveloped nations. The colonial European powers made particular use of Gatling's weapon to bolster their fortifications against hordes of warriors. Once the destructive power of the Gatling gun was realized, the technology spread around the world like wildfire.

The Gatling gun was operated by a hand-crank, which meant that it wasn't the first truly automatic weapon (that title goes to the Maxim gun invented in 1884). Regardless of this lack of automation, the Gatling gun still holds the title of first machine-fed gun useful on the field of battle.

Prior to Gatling's invention, the most common multi-shot weapons were the French mitrailleuse and grapeshot fired from cannons. The problem with both of those weapons was that they had to be reloaded after every shot, so the high mass rate of fire was counteracted by the slow manual loading process.

The operation of the Gatling gun was different. From The American Civil War Home Page:
"The Gatling gun was a hand-crank-operated weapon with 6 barrels revolving around a central shaft. The cartridges were fed to the gun by gravity through a hopper mounted on the top of the gun. 6 cam-operated bolts alternately wedged, fired, and dropped the bullets, which were contained in steel chambers. Gatling used the 6 barrels to partially cool the gun during firing."
Mitrailleuse Gatling model APX1895
(Musée de l'armée, Paris, France)
That same site places the Gatling gun's rate of fire at 600 rounds per minute (100 rounds per barrel), but other resources have a stated rate of fire of 200 rounds for an unskilled operator. Though the weapon was used in the American Civil War, it was still new and the "unskilled" operator was probably the most common one to find at least in the early years. Besides that, the 600 rounds per minute rate of fire seems more a theoretical rate rather than a practical one.

It's worth noting that the Gatling gun wasn't really adopted by the United States Army until 1866, after the war ended. This can be tied to the many problems that the original 1862-patented design had. Among these was the jamming potential of the original design, which was prodigious because of the tapered barrels that ran the risk of not always aligning properly with the chambers. The bullet design that the first Gatling gun used -- a steel chamber full of black powder and primed with a paper percussion cap -- was both fragile and expensive, as self-contained brass bullets had not yet become available.

The 1866 redesign of the Gatling gun included those aforementioned brass cartridges among other improvements, which finally resulted in the gun being picked up by the U.S Army. The Gatling gun was used extensively in the conflicts of the latter part of the 19th Century, going so far as to make the journey to Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Gatling's weapon made its appearance at San Juan Hill among other battles.

In 1876, the weapon had reached theoretical rate of fire of 1,200 rounds per minute. It's important to note that this is a purely theoretical rate, as in practice it was more likely to achieve 400 rounds per minute. This is still an impressive rate of fire for a weapon that required a four-man team to operate. Its "Bruce"-style feed system, where one row of bullets could be loaded while the other was being fired, allowed for the greater increase in rate of fire.

The U.S. Army decommissioned all its Gatling guns in 1911, declaring them obsolete and dropping the rotating barrel technology for several decades. Then the 1940s rolled around, and new designs based on the Gatling model were developed for use on fighter planes -- thus the Vulcan Gatling gun was born, and eventually a lighter three-barrel version was even developed to use on helicopters. The design is still used on fighter jets today.
Inspection of the gatling gun of an A-10 Thunderbolt II, at Osan Air Base, Korea. (from Wikipedia, Photo by USAF Staff Sgt. Bradley C. Church)
As it relates to Steampunk, the Gatling design is the consummate multi-shot heavy weapon to use against massive numbers of infantry. Many of the "gun arms" of fantasy steampunk worlds such as the Wild Arms game are Gatling-style weapons; so much so when you use the phrase "gun arm," one almost immediately thinks of a set of rotating barrels.

Hook the crank to a steam engine that runs on high-pressure steam, and you have a purely automatic weapon that can potentially be fired by a man sitting in a giant robot. The best part about the Gatling gun is that Dr. Gatling was a consummate mechanical engineer, which makes his simple and effective design perfect for use in a Steampunk society where gearwork and steam power dominates.

How would you design a Steampunk Gatling-style weapon? What materials would you use?


Shannon O'Donnell said...

Wow. This is really interesting stuff, Matt. I don't think I'm mechanically inclined enough to answer your question, but I enjoyed reading your post. :-)

I sent you a quick email. Thank you for the Steampunk Blog Tour recommendation - you are awesome! :-)

Jorgen said...

I have been thinking about contacting Piper's Precision Products ( to see if they can build a custom Steampunk M134A2 BB Vulcan Minigun. I was thinking about an all brass colored exterior perhaps with false screws or bolts. It should probably have a large, bulky look to it with plenty of hammer dents. The front handle could be made of hardwood. The trigger should be a pistol grip with fake pearl handle. It should also be engraved to give it to the 19th century appearance. I am currently stuck on how to give it a Dr. Grordbort's Infallible Aether Oscillators ( look to it. I don't know what else, Pressure gauges? Vacuum tubes? Spinning dials? or even a steam whistle.
I thought at least the back section should be a steam engine. Or perhaps I should design a backpack that doubles for the steam engine and an ammo box with fake ammunition feeder going to the gun.
I also want to replicate the vest and articulating arm use with "smartgun" ( from the second Aliens movie. A brass frame with welded D-ring buckles. Leather padding with stitch thick leather belts which would connect to the D-ring buckles on the frame. The articulated arm would also be created from brass colored metal with suitable brass colored springs. This way the gun could be maneuverable in many different directions as well as enjoying a stable shooting platform. I would like to use as much brass as possible. I'm estimating a budget of at least $15,000. Yet I have to be fair, I've only been thinking and planning for about three days. If more people are interested we could possibly reduce the cost.

Under construction said...

See my REAL, steampunk style, crankfired .22 caliber, convertible from water cooled to air cooled, Ruger 10/22 rifle here at this link......,27640.0.html

Under construction said...

How would I design a manually crank fired, rapid fire steampunk style firearm? Like this....